Theatre review: The Empress, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


Tanika Gupta's new play kicks off from an idea that is almost profligately rich in potential. An epic piece spanning the fourteen years from 1887 to 1901, it sets out to show us Victorian London from the unfamiliar perspective of the Indians living there under the reign of an ageing monarch who was also the Empress of India.

Lez Brotherston's design for this Emma Rice production at the Swan is dominated by rigging and nautical sails (on which black and white footage of rolling waves and evocative period photographs are projected) and disembarking at Tilbury docks, we meet the characters whose interconnected fates the play will chart. 

These include two artfully contrasted and counterpointed characters. There is the real-life figure of Abdul Karim from Agra, whom the Viceroy of India sent (in the capacity of servant) as a Diamond Jubilee gift to Victoria. With echoes of John Brown, though without the sense of his being in any way an emotional substitute for Albert, Abdul (winningly portrayed by Tony Jayawardena) found himself becoming a firm royal favourite and the Queen's “Munshi” or “teacher” (he instructed her in basic Hindi and painted word portraits of the subcontinent she reigned over but never visited). 

Meanwhile Rani Das (played with bewitching alertness by Anneika Rose) undergoes the parlous vicissitudes of a young teacher at the opposite end of the scale. Dumped as the sixteen year old governess by a white middle-class family the minute they land in England, she and her rather picaresque progress are our point of entry into truly fascinating worlds well worth discovering – the Homes for Ayahs, run by Christians, in London; the electoral campaign and social circle of Dadabhai Naoroji, (Vincent Ebrahim) who was the first ever Indian to win a seat at Westminster (as a Liberal for Central Finsbury in 1892).

I wish I could say that The Empress does this marvellous material justice. But while it is certainly lively, with lots of singing and dancing and an overarching sundered-lovers romantic framework, it fatally lacks a truly historical imagination. 

I began to lose confidence almost from the outset when the cast let rip with new lyrics to the tune of “Bless 'Em All”. If you can't hear that that melody (which derives from the Great War) would be inconceivable in 1887, then perhaps writing historical drama is not your forte. Likewise, the altercations between Beatie Edney's Victoria and Kristin Hutchinson's strenuously racist Lady Sarah sound tinny and untextured. And there's no ambivalence or ambiguity or properly imaginative attempt to understand the past as the past understood itself (why, say, the Establishment were so wrongly suspicious of Abdul). A largely wasted opportunity.

To 4 May; 0844 800 1110