Neil Dowden in west London
16 October 2023
Ten years on from premiering Tanika Gupta’s The Empress, the RSC have revived the epic drama first at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and now at Lyric Hammersmith. Set in the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign from her Golden Jubilee in 1887 to her death in 1901, the play follows two parallel stories of Indians – one fictional woman, one historical man – who briefly meet on a ship sailing to London’s Tilbury Docks. Their fortunes are mixed as both – in very different ways – experience the racial discrimination against immigrants from the subcontinent to the mother country.
The company. Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz.
Rani Das, a 16-year-old ayah (nursemaid), has accompanied an English family on the long voyage only for them to dump her as soon as they arrive with a letter of reference and a cursory pay-off. Knowing no one in London, she goes with the lascar (sailor) Hari – a fellow Indian with whom she has formed a fledgling romance – to a bawdy boarding house, but alarmed by her seedy surroundings she runs away. She gets a job but is impregnated by her manipulative master before finding sanctuary in a Christian women’s refuge and becoming the secretary of the first Indian MP, Dadabhai Naoroji (whom she had also met on the ship).
Meanwhile, her fellow passenger Abdul Karim becomes the munshi (teacher) to Queen Victoria, who though made Empress in 1876 has never been to India, so he helps India come to her. But the proud Muslim is much resented and distrusted by other members of the royal household – including her son Edward – who plot to remove him from what they see as an unnatural influence on the besotted widow still mourning the death of Prince Albert.
The play is an ingenious mixture of fact and fiction set against the background of the formation of the British Asian community a century and a half ago. Gupta’s plays have specialized in exploring the connections and conflicts between colonial Britain and India, including her adaptations of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2019) and Dickens’s Great Expectations, both relocated to the Raj. Here, she focuses more on the impact of India on Britain, which turned into a richly complex, long-term symbiotic relationship – despite the spurious claim of current UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman (of Indian heritage herself) that multiculturalism has “failed”.
The company. Photo credit: Ellie Kurtz.
The story of Victoria and Abdul had already been told in Shrabani Basu’s book (and later in the film version), but The Empress dramatizes the genuine emotional attachment between the two despite the huge gulf in their respective positions in the hierarchy where mistress and servant also reflect their own countries’ power imbalance. And if Rani and Hari represent the possibility of ordinary migrants overcoming daunting challenges to make a life for themselves in Britain, “Grand Old Man of India” Naoroji (Liberal MP for Finsbury Central, 1892–5 and three times President of the Indian National Congress) embodies the nascent Indian independence movement. He was a big influence on Gandhi who slightly anachronistically has a cameo here as does Jinnah (both of whom have more substantial roles in Anupama Chandrasekhar’s The Father and the Assassin at the National Theatre).
It’s a fascinating set-up, even if Gupta tends to paint with broad brushstrokes and the stories sometimes feel like more of an illustration of historical period than living, breathing drama. There are certainly shades of grey here, with Rani encountering sympathetic support as well as exploitative prejudice among British people, while Abdul’s flawed personality is shown to be a factor in his downfall. But despite engaging humanity and humour there is a tendency towards generic characterization and oversimplified themes that prevents the play from making the most of its potential – though it is easy to see why it has become a GCSE set text.
The entertaining, near-three-hour production of Pooja Ghai (artistic director of Tamasha) – featuring 18 actors and five musicians – is full of movement, including The Tempest-like opening scene of a storm at sea and Dickensian-style London street encounters, while the section in the home for abandoned ayahs is mined for satirical comedy. Rosa Maggiora’s two-tier set underlines the upper and lower levels of society, with the Queen sitting within gilt picture frames looking down on her subjects, while centre stage a large illuminated “O” suggests the British crown encircling its global empire. Matt Haskins’s dramatic lighting includes a fiery red glow when Victoria and Abdul’s letters are burnt after her death, and Ben and Max Ringham’s evocative sound and stirring music also add much to the ambience.
Tanya Katyal excels as the wide-eyed Rani whose excited curiosity suddenly gives way to anxious insecurity as she is forced to grow up quickly and learns to assert herself. Raj Baraj also impresses as the upwardly mobile Abdul who pays a painful price for his boldness, always an outsider at court despite being so close to the monarch. Alexandra Gilbreath gives a subversively droll portrait of the Queen – this Victoria is very much amused – who seems to want to break free of the royal rules that restrict her. Miriam Grace Edwards makes an impact as the disdainful lady-in-waiting Lady Sarah who tries to enforce the protocols. Aaron Gill is a sympathetic Hari who matures during the trials and tribulations he endures. And Simon Rivers plays Naoroji with the benevolent gravitas worthy of such a pioneering figure in India’s modern history.