Written by Tanika Gupta, The Empress is a lovely life-affirming play which has film script written all over it. It is what The Swan Theatre is specialising in at the moment:Â a multi-character cast played by a splendid company. Director Emma Rice creates a production full of stagecraft and it looks as if she and designer Lez Brotherston worked closely together because there is not a moment where the design is at odds with the direction or vice versa.
Ostensibly the play examines Queen Victoria’s relationship with India, a country she never visited but was interested in. It is unusual and refreshing to see a play where Queen Victoria is the liberal, struggling against a conservative and possibly racist male government. I was reminded of the shock I got on visiting Osborne House on the Isle of WightÂ to discover thatÂ Victoria and Albert had furnished the house in completely contemporary fashion, becoming patrons of bang up to date designers, artists and furniture makers.Â The play is set long after Albert’s death and owes something small toÂ Mrs Brown in that Victoria champions her Indian servant Abdul Karim, promoting him to the position of Munshi, teacher to the Queen, much to the disgust of the prejudiced government and court. But there is a crucial difference. There is none of the teasing of the movie that there are sexual undertones between Victoria and Brown. Here Tony Jayawardena plays Abdul Karim as far from a sexual predator; he is self-interested, he is concerned to further his own prospects, but he is a loyal servant to the Queen and serves her as such: a genuine teacher. ThereÂ are no sexual vibrations from Victoria either; splendidly played by Beatie Edney, she is incredulous that her entourage is racist, suspicious and dirty-minded.
At the same time, interwoven with this chronological narrative, is the story of Rani Das, an ayah employed to look after the children of one of theÂ English rulers in India returning to Britain. She is raped by her employer, bears his child, is discarded in London, becomes impoverished and destitute, is sheltered by Lascar Sally in the East End, makes her way in life by her own efforts and is eventually reconciled with her first love, Hari.
There are some touching scenes. Hari, played by Ray Pantahaki, and Rani, played by Anneika Rose, are thoroughly engaging and captivating. The children are beautifully played by clothes, evoking all the magic that puppetry at its best can evoke.
This is a play which celebrates cultural difference. It explores the difficulties ofÂ inter-cultural interactions but it shows women (Victoria and Lascar Sally) as exempla of modern thinking. If Queen Victoria in her old age canÂ embrace cultural diversity as enriching then so can we.
The show isÂ very beautifully blocked. The music by Stu Barker and Sheema Mukherjee is stunning but not overbearing. There are many lovely visual images, from the cardboard cut out of London near the beginning to the burningÂ lotus flowersÂ at the end. Curtains and projections are used judiciously and effectively throughout. The singing is wonderful; Dom Coyote and Japjit Kaur are delightful to listen to.
I loved this show. It isn’t particularly profound but it is beautifully done.
See it before its ridiculously short run ends. And stay at Moss Cottage while you do, one of the highestÂ rated Bed and Breakfasts in Stratford on Trip Advisor.