Writer: Tanika Gupta
Director: Pooja Ghai
The Empress is a touching, hard-hitting, and joyful new production from the Royal Shakespeare Company, written by Tanika Gupta.
The classic Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon has become a lovingly dressed home for this play exploring themes of colonialism and migration in Victorian England. As the audience enters, we’re greeted by two towering rope ladders which become the setting of the first scene: a ship travelling from India to England. The cast and band captivate from the beginning with a song and exploration of the complex relationships between those on board.
Rani Das (Tanya Katyal) is introduced as a curious and exceptional young woman, travelling with her employers, an English family. Although she has plans to stay with them in England to be their ayah (nanny), she also finds herself a star-crossed lover in Hari, a sailor on the ship. Their romance is sweet but threatened by issues of status, and Rani is warned to be careful of whom she befriends by another passenger on board. This passenger later turns out to be Abdul Karim, who becomes Queen Victoria’s Munshi. Also on this ship is eminent politician, Dadabhai Naoroji, who is on his way to shake up British politics with his anti-imperialism.
At the dock, all the passengers go their separate ways. Rani is abandoned by her family and left to fend for herself in England, setting a series of events in motion that will see her misused, abused, and left reeling. Ultimately her resilience and the support of other women see Rani find her ground and stand tall as a confident, intelligent woman. This journey is brilliantly juxtaposed with Queen Victoria’s (Alexandra Gilbreath) relationship with Abdul Karim. The conflict and triumph felt at different times by these characters are beautifully poignant, speaking to the struggles faced by migrants and colonised countries then as well as now.
One of the most striking moments is a speech made by Naoroji, in the Commons, during the Diamond Jubilee. He rails about the decadence experienced by the British public while colonised countries swim with poverty and plague, and although this was a speech from 1897, the premise rings true today. The Empress is filled with powerful imagery, both striking (that speech seems to be supported by a strong theme of blue and yellow, perhaps speaking to current world struggles) and sentimental. The ensemble works together beautifully, the live music provides a stunning underscore; director Pooja Ghai has crafted a phenomenal show.
Honourable mention goes to Avita Jay, who plays Firoza, a friend to Rani; she absolutely commands the stage with her wit and cheeky sparkle. Gilbreath’s Queen Victoria is surprisingly likeable and yet believable, with a commanding presence, and is well-balanced by Francesca Faridany’s Lady Sarah and Raj Bajaj’s Abdul Karim. There are hidden gems uncovered at every step, and despite being over two and a half hours long, The Empress is captivating until the very end.
To quote an audience member, “wow.” This is a play not to be missed.
Runs until: 18 November 2023