The Swan, so atmospheric with its dark wood and warm light, welcomes me with projected waves crashing upon a shore. I'm on board a ship's deck, and the year is 1887.
With Kneehigh's Emma Rice at the helm, I had high hopes for The Empress, and the opening does not disappoint. Musicians fill every corner of the intimate space; a heavily jewelled sitar player to my right wears elaborate Indian dress. The acting company take to the boards, some donning exposed Victorian undergarments, others exhibiting saris. The contrast could hardly be so fitting.
The language of Tanika Gupta's new play is easy to digest, and humorous in parts. As character profiles develop we observe the playful innocence of Rani (Anneka Rose), the philosopher in Hari (Ray Panthaki), and the self-assurance of Abdul (Tony Jayawardena). Thrown into late 19th century London they go their separate ways and make three very different journeys, destined to be reunited one distant day.
The play's underlying issue and recurring theme is that of prejudice, the integration of a different culture and race into a very Dickensian society. Beatie Edney's Queen Victoria is introduced to us just as history books would have us imagine her: pompous, brash, and a larger lady. Though first presented to her as a "gift", the Queen embarks upon a warm and unlikely friendship with Abdul, much to the annoyance of her family, aristocrats, and courtiers.
The play marks a period of history we too soon forget; a time of great social change, the beginnings of the great multi-culture the UK knows today. Queen Victoria's legacy is vast, with a reign that spanned 64 years; perhaps the country took inspiration from her ability to look beyond outward appearances, and into the heart.
With a strong ensemble and the most beautiful use of voice and instrument, The Empress is a delightful and insightful evening.
- Jenna Harvey