The Empress at the RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon – review

Tanika Gupta’s is revived in the Swan, before transferring to the Lyric Hammersmith

The cast of The Empress, © Ellie Kurttz
The cast of The Empress, © Ellie Kurttz

It’s ten years since the Royal Shakespeare Company gave Tanika Gupta’s sprawling epic its debut outing in the Swan, revealing the then little-known story of Queen Victoria’s Indian ‘munshi’ (teacher), Abdul Karim, and the chaos he wrought in court circles through his controversial closeness to the monarch in her final years.

In the intervening decade, a major film has told the same story, with no less a personage than Judi Dench doing her turn as the titular empress, which means that the shock value of the previously buried narrative has been considerably lessened. However, director Pooja Ghai is undaunted both by the movie retelling and by Emma Rice’s previous handling of Gupta’s play, and delivers this important story in a competent, handsome production.

In fact, there are two empresses in the show: running alongside the royal tale is a love story between two lowly immigrants, a nanny and a sailor – or ayah and lascar, to give them their Indian appellations. Rana and Hari meet on the boat over from the subcontinent and she becomes his ’empress’, only to be separated from him on their arrival in London, with complicated and disturbing consequences.

Gupta’s script is a rapid-fire succession of scenes divided between the two narratives, but it barely brings them together and even when it does it seems to serve little dramatic purpose. The parallels between them are flimsy at best, except to emphasise the appalling behaviour of the colonialist British. Some clarity – and some much-needed editing – could have been achieved by streamlining one or both of the threads.

In the same way, Rosa Maggiora’s design seems to be constantly fighting against the thrust stage space of the Swan rather than working with it. As a result, some scenes are squeezed into a cramped box while others are lost as upstage action is obscured by downstage scenery or people. But the ambition is evident – play out the sweeping saga on multiple levels, with a compass-like circle of light girdling the action – and Matt Haskins’ lighting does much to create atmosphere and scale.

Among the performances, there’s a touching romance between Tanya Katyal and Aaron Gill as Rani and Hari, even if their reunion lacks some credibility, while Raj Bajaj and Francesca Faridany spar energetically as Karim and the snooty courtier Lady Sarah. RSC stalwart Alexandra Gilbreath, meanwhile, relishes every moment of her imperious and impish Queen Victoria.

There’s some evocative music from Ben and Max Ringham and the company works tightly as a whole to push the story on, with fine supporting performances from Nicola Stephenson as a kindly London landlady, Simon Rivers as Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian MP in the House of Commons, and Miriam Grace Edwards in a couple of doubled-up roles.

The storytelling may well sharpen up over the course of its run both here and at the Lyric, Hammersmith, later in the year, and fingers crossed that it does: it’s a story worth the telling.