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

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen