THE EMPRESS: Tanika Gupta
RSC: The Swan, Stratford Upon Avon
Runs: 2h 55, one interval, till Saturday 04 05 13
Review: Alexander Ray Edser, 20 04 13
Less than the sum of its parts.
Tanika Gupta’s THE EMPRESS is a kind of mix of Epic and EastEnders – and it’s not a very happy mix. The play looks at the position of Indian immigrants in the UK around the time of Victoria’s Jubilee, and, by implication at the state of the British Empire. We see the play through the eyes of Rani, a young Indian ayah; she accompanies her employers’ children on the sea-crossing back to the UK only to find herself dumped by them as of no further use on arrival. Rani is bright and educated – her journey into mature woman is the spine of the play.
Running in parallel with this is the growing relationship between Q Victoria and a gift, Abdul Karim, who was eventually raised in the ranks from servant to teacher – much to the royal household’s horror.
The play invites us to compare and contrast.
Gupta’s writing is erratic – the structure rarely rises above ‘and then’; the plot moves from the political to the sentimental, from social comment to soap. It is ironic that the two we most care about are Victoria herself and Karim (Tony Jayawardena skilfully and touchingly moves between pride and obsequiousness). Rani Das and her trials and tribulations leave us cold. This is not the fault of actor, Anneika Rose – she gives it everything she’s got, but she cannot rescue her character from Gupta’s two-dimensions.
Emma Rice, who directs, has injected so much energy into the production that she’s squeezed out all substance – ‘if in doubt, shout’ isn’t really a directorial style that leads to engaging theatre. The result is a mushy mess.
All of this is a great shame; the election of the first UK Indian MP, this very human face of Victoria, the overt racism (it would appear) of her household, are all potentially richly interesting. And there is no doubting the commitment of the performers, musicians, and others in the team.
Ankur Bahl – Gandhi
Dom Coyote – Singer/Lascar
Vincent Ebrahim – Dadabhai Naoroji
Beatie Edney – Queen Victoria
Rina Fatania – Firoza
Tamzin Griffin – Lascar Sally/Mary
Kristin Hutchinson – Lady Sarah
Japjit Kaur – Ayah/Singer
Tony Jayawardena – Abdul Karim
Emily Mytton – Georgina/Charlotte
Aki Omoshaybi – Serang
Ray Panthaki – Hari
Anneika Rose – Rani Das
Ed Woodall – Captain/Sir John Oakham/William
Director – Emma Rice
Designer – Lez Brotherston
Lighting – Malcolm Rippeth
Music – Stu Barker and Sheema Mukherjee
Sound – Jonathan Ruddick
Fights – Terry King
Director of Puppetry – Sarah Wright
Video – Maxwell White
Bharatanatyam Choreography – Ankur Bahl
Company Movement – Emma Rice