4 stars out of 5
A decade ago the Royal Shakespeare Company unveiled Tanika Gupta’s ambitiously Dickensian historical romance in a staging by Emma Rice. I didn’t see the premiere, but this revival apparently sets out to deepen and darken Gupta’s sprawling saga about the parallel and, at least to some degree, intersecting fortunes of a handful of south Asian immigrants during the last 14 years of Queen Victoria’s reign.
Smoothly piloted by a new director, Pooja Ghai, and featuring some fine performances, this well-appointed production is ultimately both winning and unexpectedly touching. If Gupta’s revamp — she has revised the script for the revival — occasionally seems a tad musty and drawn in overly broad strokes, it still feels relevant, especially considering our present government’s controversial immigration strategies.
There are actually two empresses at the centre of the script. One of them is Victoria (played with an impressive blend of humour and gravitas by Alexandra Gilbreath). The play begins in 1887, when England was at the height of its colonial power and the monarch was marking her Golden Jubilee. The other, nominal “empress” is Rani (charmingly embodied by Tanya Katyal), an intelligent but naive teenage ayah, or nursemaid, accompanying an English family on their shipboard journey back home from India.
Both of these women will form an enduring although problematic bond with a man. Rani falls for a mutually smitten lascar or sailor (the affable Aaron Gill), but circumstances force them apart. Victoria, meanwhile, becomes enamoured with the real-life Abdul Karim (the canny Raj Bajaj), a servant sent to her as a gift but whom she elevates to the role of teacher and confidant. (This story was the basis of the 2017 film Victoria & Abdul, starring Judi Dench.)
Gupta provides plenty of context for both relationships, much of it unsurprisingly damning in terms of the exploitative behaviour and prejudicial attitudes of the white westerners. She also strikes a highly workable balance between fact and fiction, and the personal and the political. The latter is underlined by the presence of Dadabhai Naoroji, an activist and politician who was the first Indian to be elected to the House of Commons. Simon Rivers plays him as a stately but impassioned gentleman. There are other, equally attractive supporting performances, particularly from Francesca Faridany as Victoria’s protective lady-in-waiting and Avita Jay in a warm, often comic turn as an experienced ayah.
Ghai keeps things moving on a handsome, split-level set dominated by a giant, glowing ring fitted out on either side with a ladder and a spiral stair — like joint symbols of the rise and fall of influence and self-determination. The designer is Rosa Maggiora. Credit, too, to the unobtrusively effective music and sound design of Ben and Max Ringham. The Empress may not always succeed as complex drama, but as a historically fascinating slice of popular entertainment with an at times almost cinematic sweep it delivers the goods.
4 stars out of 5
Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Tanika Gupta’s historical drama has only got more relevant since 2013, but there’s an awful lot of migration stories to get through in three hours
The benefit of period pieces is that they are resistant, if not entirely immune, to the vagaries of fashion. They also might take on the politics and conversations of the day, providing a new prism through which to view the world.
It is a decade since the premiere of Tanika Gupta’s The Empress, a story stretching over a 13-year-period from Queen Victoria’s jubilee year of 1887, following a group of travellers arriving in Britain from India. A tale of people travelling across oceans to build a new life in the UK, only to be met with hostility and exploitation, has surely grown more relevant in the intervening decade.
Pooja Ghai’s busy new production, opening as the original did at the Swan theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, eventually settles down. It doesn’t overemphasise the contemporary resonances, instead leaving the audience to do the work when we see a desperate young woman bereft in a port, abandoned and with enough money to buy passage only as far as France (she wants to leave England and return home, so hostile was the welcome she received).
Gupta, a skilled storyteller, weaves the fates of a lascar (sailor) and an ayah (nursemaid) from India, together with the relationship between Abdul Karim and Queen Victoria (more widely known these days thanks to the Judi Dench turn in the film Victoria & Abdul) and the remarkable Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian MP.
Even with Gupta’s skill, and a three-hour running time, there is only so much justice you can do to three stories. Rani, the ayah, is pregnant in one scene, has a baby in the next and not long after, the child is an 11-year-old. The interweaving of the stories feels a little hastily executed at the end.
But the cast are uniformly outstanding. As Rani, Tanya Katyal has an exact combination of vulnerability and defiance; Raj Bajaj’s Abdul is as supercilious as he is obsequious; and Alexandra Gilbreath steals every scene she is in as a hugely entertaining Queen Victoria. The biggest issue might be that, even at three hours, audiences might actually crave more story.