The Empress at RSC The Swan Theatre Review

The Empress at RSC The Swan Theatre Review


Posted 2023-07-29 by Alison in Birmingham follow

Mon 24 Jul 2023 - Sat 18 Nov 2023

There's countless TV series and films on the reign of Queen Victoria but not many that show the gritty realism about the other side of the empire. Told from the perspective of Indians sailing into the British Isles for new lives of different kinds, it's a journey spanning romance and friendship but also bigotry and the fight for political justice.

The Empress is a Royal Shakespeare Company(RSC) production that's on at its Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon over the Summer until November 18; along with at London's Lyric Hammersmith Theatre from October 4 to 28.

Written by Tanika Gupta, it first appeared back in 2013 and returns a decade later. Maybe it's a good time for a revisit with more open public debate about the darker side of the British Empire, the Commonwealth and its legitimacy.

Starting off in Queen Vic's Golden Jubilee year of 1887, the tale follows a likeable bunch of characters over 13 years through highs and some very tough lows. At the centre of it, all is bright and cheerful 16-year-old nanny Rani, who soon has her optimism shocked out of her at the hands of the British upper classes. It's not the fair play she was brought up to expect from the stiff upper-lip crowd who treat her like an insect on their shoe.

Don't think this is as black and white as all Britons being racist, it's more multi-layered than that and most of the worst treatment handed out is related to class. Ironically, it's the Queen at the top of the ladder who shows the most open-mindedness.

An excellent Alexandra Gilbreath plays Victoria with boundless passion and good humour. The Queen is depicted as colour-blind and inquisitive about other cultures, especially when it comes to her famously beloved Muslim servant Abdul Karim. He's also arrived on Rani's boat along with a young Gandhi and Britain's first Indian-born MP in the House of Commons, Dadabhai Naoroji.

It ends up being the Lords and Ladies grappling around the Queen that fall short on their morals and blinding belief in their own superiority. The villain of the piece is Victoria's companion, Lady Sarah. Francesca Faridany hits just the right note of vicious hostility towards Abdul that you almost want to boo her at many points in the play. Her final piece of revenge is particularly emotive.

At the other end of the class system, it's a relief to see the camaraderie between all colours in a country that has long been multi-cultural due to its trading posts. Nicola Stephenson, who many will remember from Brookside, is the friendly boarding house manager 'Lascar Sally', whose heart belongs to many an Indian sailor.

It's refreshing to see how writer Gupta has made this an all-embracing piece covering various Indian religions too - Hindus, Muslims, even Parsi. It's a challenging story to tell, which will still hit a nerve with many. For the most part, Gupta handles it well. Although, there are some moments when it loses all subtlety and verges into a mini-lecture by exasperated MP Naoraji.

That said, there's much to enjoy and the love story running through it lifts the heavy storyline. There's also lovely chemistry between Gilbreath's Victoria and Raj Bajaj's Abdul with a joyously vibrant scene when he brings India to her. Music, dance, spices and food aromas fill the stage.

Director Pooja Ghai has some lovely touches. The way that when Indians are speaking to each other, their accents are very British, often regional, but change into cliche Indian tones when talking to English people. It's a clever tool showing when they'd be speaking to each other in their own language.

Aaron Gill as Jack the lad sailor Hari and S Tanya Katyal as heroine Rani are a beguiling pair, both glowing on stage and obvious future talents to keep an eye on.

I was mesmerised by The Empress as it is a beautifully told tale that is finally portraying a lesser-told narrative from a somewhat murky, difficult history. It's refreshing to see this point of view being aired, especially as someone of part-Indian heritage. Everyone should see this but particularly anyone with Indian ancestry.

The Empress may not be particularly subtle, but it's a fascinating, enthralling and passionate production that isn't just showing history from the victor's perspective for once.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

!date 24/07/2023 -- 18/11/2023
261655 - 2023-07-26 21:59:32


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