Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
18th July 2023
Written by Tanika Gupta
Directed by Pooja Ghai
Ten years after the RSC first commissioned and produced Tanika Gupta’s The Empress in the Swan, it returns as part of the 2023 Summer Season, directed by Pooja Ghai. It begins in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, on the deck of a boat voyaging from India to London and we are introduced to four key characters whose lives we will follow for the next thirteen years, as they briefly intertwine throughout the journey and as they disembark at Tilbury Docks.
The story combines fictional and real-life characters, centring on Rani Das (Tanya Katyal) a 16 year old ayah (nursemaid) who is drawn to young Indian lascar (sailor) Hari (Aaron Gill). On the voyage, we are also introduced to Abdul Karim (Raj Bajaj), a servant who is to be gifted to Queen Victoria, and Dadabhai Naoroji (Simon Rivers), the real-life politician who became Britain’s first elected Asian MP in 1892, as well as a young political ethicist MK Ghandi (Anish Roy).
Bright-eyed and full of hope for the future, Rani is excited to live and work in England, however as the ship docks, she is dismissed from her service by the wealthy white family she has been working for, with only references and a small pouch of money. Hari takes her under his care, and promises her that he will look after her, introducing her to Lascar Sally (Nicola Stephenson) as they stay in her rowdy boarding house in the docks.
However, Rani and Hari are separated on their first night in England, Rani running onto the streets in fear, and Hari forced to return to work on the trading ships, and Gupta’s clever script blends this central plotline with the blossoming relationship between Queen Victoria (Alexandra Gilbreath) and Abdul who is elevated to the official role of Munshi (teacher) and with whom she forms a deep friendship with, much to the discomfort of her court.
The juxtaposition of the perspective of Queen Victoria, with the difficult life that Rani experiences in the era of imperialism and colonialism is beautifully showcased through not only the sharp script and the excellent performances, but also through Rosa Maggiora’s effective set design. With the Swan stage framed in a giant illuminated “O” Victoria’s scenes are performed in the main on a platform, level with the Gallery 1 seating, while the lives of the ayahs, the lascars and the politicians are played out below. The use of moving sets, and festoons, ropes and flags which are dropped from the ceiling are clever and impactful, and the trapdoor in the stage adds another exit entrance to keep the action moving.
The performances are, without exception, excellent, with an ensemble cast supporting the main stories, and the inclusion of brief moments of relevant song and dance are welcome and beautifully executed. There are supporting cast, too, who perform key moments in Rani’s life with a special mention to Avita Jay’s brilliant portrayal of Firoza, with one particular stand-out scene where she puts on an act for the Christian benefactors who fund a Home for Ayahs, and then asks the other ayahs “so, how was my performance?” when they have left.
Alexandra Gilbreath and Raj Bajaj are exceptional in their lead roles. Gilbreath’s Victoria is magnificent, portraying the Queen as full of humour with a wicked and sharp personality. A final scene where Bajaj’s Abdul brings India to the Queen, as she was unable to visit in her lifetime, is filled with colour, scent and pathos as their relationship is fully cemented in mutual platonic love, before her death. Tanya Katyal and Aaron Gill absolutely shine as the young protagonists who battle a world in which they are second class citizens, and their relationships with each other and with all of those around them are fully realised.
The play runs at 2 hours and 50 minutes, but never feels too long, and although the climax of the play did have a slight “Disney ending” feel to it, it wasn’t necessarily out of place.
This is a relevant production which raises questions about the treatment of non-whites in Victorian times, drawing some uncomfortable parallels with current populism, and it is interesting to hear Queen Victoria call out racism in her family and her government. But while it asks questions, is also gives us answers and Firoza’s declaration that “we can’t change the direction of the wind, but we can adjust the sails” was met with a ripple of appreciation in the capacity audience.
This was a play which was extremely well-received and was met with warm and lengthy applause. It tells an urgent story with grace and humour and is well worth a watch.
Reviewer: Rebecca Morris
The Empress plays in rep in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 18 November 2023
The Empress also plays at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, London between 4-28 October 2023.