John Dryden is most commonly encountered today through his work as composer Henry Purcell’s go-to librettist (he penned the texts for both King Arthur and The Indian Queen); yet he also wrote upwards of 30 plays, none of which have much currency today. Perhaps that’s because few of them deserve to. Certainly Aureng-zebe, here unearthed, abridged and more accessibly retitled by Barrie Rutter for his Yorkshire-based company Northern Broadsides (this is his final piece as artistic director of the troupe), is a triumph of scansion over sense and sensibility.
Written in 1675 at a time when Restoration comedy was king, Aureng-zebe uses heroic couplets to relate the tale of three Mughals, an Emperor and his two sons, whose respective love lives become entangled by their overlapping infatuations. As Dr Johnson observed, so the helpful programme tells us, "the personages are imperial, but the dialogue is often domestick". That observation must have been music to Rutter’s Yorkshire ears, for in a gesture of parochial panache he has relocated the regal action to a provincial cloth-dying factory, c. 1970.
The insistent rhythmic rhyming within the piece can be a barrier to dramatic pulse and here you yearn for the actors to play against the grain of the metre, but that rarely happens. And although Rutter himself, wily old salt that he is, wrings every ounce of wit and pathos from the Emperor’s lines, he doesn’t always succeed in drawing comparable work from his cast. Two of them, indeed, give performances that are barely adequate.
The production’s Indian tang is a plus, not just in the casting but in the contributions of three musicians who render Niraj Chag’s insidiously beautiful incidental music as dramatic underscoring. When Nawazish Ali Khan sings beneath the final tragedy, a routine staging comes alive.
Designs are so deliberately homespun that they make the famous Sam Wanamaker Playhouse candles seem like a hi-tech overhang. Jessica Worrall fills the tiny stage with slabs of brightly coloured fabric, but sets these against a grim white-brick wall complete with clocking-in machine and some dodgy-looking wiring (the text mentions a portcullis; but, hey, dramatic licence). As a location it’s better suited to bobbins than battles, but thankfully the play’s warring hordes remain unseen so it kind of works. When Dryden’s text calls for a sword there’s usually a monkey-wrench to hand.
Strong work from Silas Carson as Arimant, Sarah Ridgeway as Melesinde and Angela Griffin as the Emperor’s beehived wife keeps the play ticking along, although it’s the boss whose every appearance lifts the energy. "Why must you be so excellently good?" he complains at one point, a line one can imagine some of his actors throwing back at him.
If you’re wondering about the newly-eponymous captive queen, by the way, she’s Indamora, played by Neerja Naik. However it remains Aurengzeb’s play, title change or no, and the excellent Naeem Hayat invests him with plenty of Rutterish welly. He’s the apple of the Emperor’s eye in more ways than one.
The Captive Queen runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 4 March.