Review by Rosie Holmes
Transferring directly from the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon, the RSC’s production of Tanika Gupta’s The Empress, a sweeping tale of Indian experience in Victorian London, is now in residence at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. Having first been staged 10 years ago, the play covers the tale of Queen Victoria’s teacher, Abdul Karim, made more famous to the general public after the release of the 2017 film Victoria and Abdul.
The Empress features the stories of a number of Victorian Indians living in London, spanning a period of 13 years over the golden era of the empire, including Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897 and her death in 1901. Mixing fact and fiction, we see the stories of recognisable historical figures, and some of fictitious but representative characters. Loosely connecting them is their voyage to London, across the ocean from India on the same boat. Among them is Rani Das, a 16-year-old Ayah (nanny) who is dismissed by her employers as she reaches London, leaving her alone and lost. We see her experience of being a young Indian woman in Victorian London and her many mistreatments. Rani befriends a Luska (sailor) on board the boat, through whom we are given further insights into these characters’ struggles.
Alongside the fictional Rani and Hari is another story of companionship, depicting Queen Victoria and her ‘Munshi’ (teacher) Abdul Karim. Through this story, Gupta is able to explore the Monarch’s feelings towards the empire, and specifically the Indian subcontinent. We see her fascination with the culture, with the food, wishing to hear all about the Taj Mahal and her clear fondness for Karim, yet we also see her speed in retracting her offer of awarding him a CBE when parliament and her son reject it.
It's clear to see why these two stories have been chosen. They show the mistreatment of Indians in Victorian England at both ends of the class spectrum, and it's an interesting take. We see both the British fascination with Indian culture, and the unwillingness to view the people themselves as equals. It does, however, feel that there is much in this story that is glossed over, and, despite its almost three-hour length, the play doesn’t provide enough depth to many of its characters. For example, Lady Sarah, Queen Victoria’s servant and friend, is used almost solely to encompass the British higher classes attitude to empire and its inhabitants, expressing racist thoughts and feeling of superiority without nuance or clear reasoning. Again, there are many characters that feel like they deserve a play in their own right to truly emotionally connect with them.
While I can see the aim of the play was to examine experiences of Indians in Victorian London across a wide social spectrum, it often lessens the characters’ impact. Not only are we introduced to the very real Victoria and Abdul, but Gandhi makes an appearance as well as the first Indian MP, Dadabhai Naoroji, whose story in itself could fill a three-hour play, and thus his experience is a little too neatly packaged to make a real impact. Karim we only see accompanying Queen Victoria, her views towards him the focus and little shown about his own life, or background. Similarly, while the beginning is quite slow in pace, it feels as though some scenes and character arcs move too quickly. In one scene, Rani is pregnant and the next she has an 11-year-old daughter, an example of how the pacing can make it hard to fully engage with the characters.
This is a shame, as the stories on show here really do deserve to be told, and are in fact interesting and captivating, and the wonderful cast really do the characters justice. Tanya Katyal is the star of the show as Rani Das, portraying a wonderfully curious and clever Rani with an equal combination of vulnerability and desire to survive against the odds. Alexandra Gilbreath is also scene stealing as the irreverent Queen Victoria. Ageing and blunt in her opinions, she delivers many of the play’s funniest lines, which are also rather uncomfortably illuminating about the monarch and, indeed, Victorian Britain’s attitude towards the empire. Aaron Gill is also quietly charismatic as Hari, and Raj Bajaj is witty as Abdul Karim.
Stage design by Rosa Maggiora is cinematic, double levelled with Queen Victoria nearly always on stage. Framed almost as if a portrait, she watches over her subjects below, cementing her superiority. Victorian life is quickly created by cosy rooms, and the ship is cleverly created using ropes and steaming trap doors. Not minimalist in any sense, the staging is immersive and effective in transporting the audience to Victorian England.
Whilst there are some pacing issues in the play, this is still a hugely successful piece. Witty and illuminating it explores a topic I have seldom seen explored in the theatre. Its characters do have the potential to tell incredible stories and, in some cases, do succeed. The writing is often funny and touching, and especially informative as an interesting probe into British history. There is plenty of compelling material and a wonderful cast, The Empress tells that deserve to be told. Yet, could and should be explored further for a deeper understanding of the experience of Indian people in the era of empire.
The Empress plays at Lyric Theatre Hammersmith until 28th October 2023, tickets can be purchased here - The Empress - Lyric Hammersmith
Photos by Ellie Kurttz