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

3.00

 

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

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam