Dryden’s verse drama Aureng-zebe, gets a new title – The Captive Queen – and smart, stylised, but strangely hollow treatment in a production infused with the tangible sense of a gradually approaching ending.
Telling the story of a declining Emperor lusting after his son’s lover amid a messy dynastic power struggle, the play is the last, and best, which Dryden wrote in heroic verse. Its strident language and bold themes make it a strong choice to anchor the final winter season from the Globe’s outgoing artistic director Emma Rice, while also marking the departure of director, dramaturg, and performer Barrie Rutter from Northern Broadsides, the company he founded in 1992.
His staging shifts the action from Mughal India to a 20th Century England at a historical moment when the reckless momentum of industrialisation had finally derailed in the incalculable carnage of mechanised warfare. A time of closures, consolidation, and restructuring that saw many workers migrating to new industries.
Here, the characters become textile makers and tea ladies, working double shifts as storytellers. Taking a leading role as the Old Emperor, Rutter also sweeps the stage as the janitor, symbolic of an older order not yet aware that it’s been overturned.
The imperial court, meanwhile, becomes a mill and dying shop, churning out huge bolts of vividly coloured cloths which serve as set dressing, banners, and costumes, draped ceremonially over each performer’s blue overalls with ritualistic reverence. Awls and tailor’s scissors stand in for swords. A poisonous potion arrives in a thermos flask.
Jessica Worrall’s design clads the Wanamaker’s gorgeous woodwork with dingy white brick, a clanking clock-in machine mounted on one wall. It conjures up the setting admirably, but unavoidably detracts from the unique charm of the space – losing some of that intangibly evocative magic of shadow and candlelight – in the process.
Abridged as it is, the text would likely have benefitted from a little more trimming. The pace is slow and, while the cast invest the rhyming couplets with satisfyingly naturalistic rhythms, a tendency towards end-stopping occasionally wrenches the heightened language towards the kind of nails-on-chalkboards doggerel which sets your teeth on edge. Occasional bursts of live music lift the slow pace, with Nawazish Ali Kahn’s lilting singing conveying more immediate emotion and more poetry than any other element of the production.
The show’s second half takes a sharp turn into more humorous territory, almost all of it intentional. There are enough knowing nods to indicate that the slew of last-minute conversions, floridly-articulated death wishes, and rapid-onset romantic obsessions we witness shouldn’t be taken quite literally, or seriously.
Angela Griffin plays up the comic potential to great effect with a swaggering performance as the scorned Empress Nourmahal. After stealing her every scene for two acts, her sudden, crushing fall from power becomes one of the play’s most affecting moments. As loyal son Aureng-zebe, Naeem Hayat wrestles with loyalty, love, fratricide, and incestuous propositions with a believable mixture of grace and horrified bemusement.
Ending not with a bang, a whimper, or a dirge, the story concludes in a quiet, self-reproaching reconciliation. Never quite capitalising on its strong ideas and compelling material, the production feels unfinished for all its strengths, a fitting but low-key swansong.
The Captive Queen is on until 4 March 2018 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Click here for more details.