Review: The Empress, RSC, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
The Empress takes you on a voyage across the sea from exotic India to Victorian London…
Stories of five true and fictional characters are cleverly weaved together in Tanika Gupta’s breathtakingly beautiful new play at the RSC’s Swan Theatre.
Gandhi, Abdul Karim –who was to become Queen Victoria’s manservant - Dadabhai Naroji - Parliament’s first Indian MP - Lascar sailor Hari and 16-year-old Indian nanny Rani Das, are literally and symbolically all in the same boat together .
It’s 1887 –and the flags are out for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Two main subplots centre on the supressed true story of Queen Victoria and her Indian teacher or ‘munshi’; and the fictional tale of Rani, who like many young Indian Ayahs at the time is dumped and left destitute in the London underworld by the English family whose children she cared for.
We also witness the rise of Indian nationalism as Gandhi and MP Dadabhai Naroji , are drawn into this touching drama about love, immigration and colonialism.
Queen Victoria is eating her breakfast, a boiled egg when lady-in-waiting Sarah announces her surprise present from Sir John Tyler, the Governor of North West India, has arrived – Abdul Karim.
Despite Lady Sarah’s protests, the queen decided ‘one’ cannot send him back because the colour of his silk turban matches her egg cup.
Lady Sarah asks him slowly: “Do-you-speak-English?” He replies: “English is one of several languages I speak”.
The dialogue is brilliantly observed and very funny.
Performances are excellent all-round. But Beatie Edney’s portrayal of the curry-loving and culturally inquisitive Queen Victoria, who wishes she could ride an elephant and see the Taj Mahal, is fantastic. She brings warmth and humour to the role.
Resplendent in beautiful turbans, tunics and Aladdin shoes Tony Jayawardena is wonderful as the quick-witted and charming Abdul, whose close relationship with the queen triggers a constitutional crisis and racial prejudice.
Understandably upset at being regarded as the Queen’s “exotic pet” by the Royal household there is a bristling animosity between Abdul and Lady Sarah, prompting much hilarity.
When promoted from manservant to ‘munshi’ he says to the lady-in-waiting saying: “I am no longer a servant - take my glass”.
But Anneika Rose’s bright, beautiful and resourceful Rani almost steal the show. Her wide-eyed innocence quickly evaporates when her new employer Sir John Oakham gets her pregnant. But she never gives up hope she will find her true love, Hari.
Costumes are stunning, from the exquisite sari’s to the Victorian bustle and prostitutes’ corsets.
There are some visually spectacular touches under the direction of Kneehigh Theatre’s Emma Rice: destroyed letters turned into paper boats are lit on fire to sail on the water; rose petals fall as the classical Indian Bharatnatyam dance is performed; and children become walking costumes,with actors mimicking their voices.
When the munshi’s portrait is being painted an image of the real Abdul Karim is cleverly projected onto the easel and towards the end of the play black-and-white photographs of the real Victorian Ayahs, sailors and historical characters who inspired the play, become a huge slide-show.
An ingenious wooden, scaffolding set looks and feels like a boat on real water one minute; a palace the next.
The epic journey of the five characters in The Empress is not only magical and intoxicating, but historically enlightening.
• Until May 14 . www.RSC.org.uk