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The Empress - dynamic and thought provoking

The Empress. Photo (c) RSC

The Empress by Tanika Gupta, The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 18 November, 2023.

Review by Anne Cee.

The time is late 1800s, just as the first Empress of the play, Queen Victoria (Alexandra Gilbreath) is celebrating her Golden Jubilee amid the gloss and deference of official events. Gilbreath’s Victoria is playful, humorous and charming, only occasionally slipping into queeny petulance and temper tantrums with her lady in waiting, the ever loving and patient Lady Sarah (Francesca Faridany). These two symbols of the British aristocracy sail through the play in enviable gowns and coiffures, often floating in irrelevance in the raised side rooms or being served and lectured by newly arrived Indian migrant, Abdul Karim (Raj Bajaj). Is he the reputable son of an army surgeon or a charlatan chancer who has wheedled his way into the Royal Court?

A play exploring enduring themes. Photo (c) RSC

The challenges, risks and opportunities of migration from India to London are the themes of the play as we are taken through the precarious interweaving stories of the migrating passengers of one particular ship. Characters from all corners, castes and religions of India share their ambitions, their troubles and their friendship as they face the high seas and arrive on dry, relatively inhospitable land. Each one must follow their own path of adventure and misadventure in an alien place, until they unite again in a common fight for recognition and independence.

The Empress, a play tempered by humour and kindness. Photo (c) RSC

The deck of the ship is where we meet the second Empress of the play, Rani Das (Tanya Katyal), a sweet innocent who is only 16, travelling with her aristocratic English employers as their nursemaid, only to be cast aside on arrival. Aaron Gill (Hari) is the adorable young scallywag sailor who falls for the delightful Rani and his wooing of her is warm and charismatic until he is forced to return to the troubling seas to fulfil his contract of many years duration. He grows up in a harsh existence and it’s a hard life when you’re ruled by a brutal captain (Anyebe Godwin) with a cat’s tail.

Despite the historical setting, this is a story exploring enduring themes such as racism, fair play, justice which continue to resonate in Britain today. The play often hits a nerve in its dialogue and drama as it portrays the struggles and the injustices of migration experiences, but this is tempered by humour and even, at times, kindness from the edges of the host community, represented by the bawdy brothel keeper, Lascar Sally, played fabulously by Nicola Stephenson.

The stage sets were extremely effective and slickly delivered, making the most of ‘down below’ and ‘up above’ as well as the sliding room option. Its also worthy of note how food and scent were used to add ambiance – incredibly delicious and tantalising. And its always good to have rousing music and song belted out at intervals.

A lively and visually dynamic show. Photo (c) RSC

Last night, the Royal Shakespeare Company delivered a show that was lively, visually dynamic and thought provoking, ending on a celebration of Indian resilience and culture. Congratulations to Director, Pooja Ghai and all the cast and creatives. It’s a tale that many will appreciate seeing on the 21st century British stage.

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