Two of my favourite moments in Tanika Gupta’s The Empress occur on the walkway to my right, in the space between the worlds of the play and the auditorium. In the first, Tamzin Griffin marches across the stage for short scene, meets a ‘servant’ who helps her remove a layer of clothing so that she may turn around to play another part and says “I’ll meet you on the other side”, forcing the scene to reassert itself as a piece of theatre. In the second, I watch Beatie Edney dressed as an ageing Queen Victoria furiously pulling on a rope in order to assist in a scene change, which makes me laugh uncontrollably; there’s something gloriously absurd about the idea of monarchy as labour. These two flashes of genius encapsulate the tone of Emma Rice’s production, which is theatrical, energetic and fun and which also goes some way to offering a critique of empire and the monarchy.
Gupta’s play, inspired by Rozina Visram’s Ayahs, Lascars and Princes, focusses on the true story of the relationship between Queen Victoria and her teacher Abdul Karim, who became so close to the sovereign that it started to raise eyebrows among other members of the royal household. We begin in 1887, at Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (cue contemporary resonances), at which point she was presented with her new servant, and follow right through to her death in 1901. It’s a fascinating story which considers the relationship of the queen to her colonies but also has at its heart a platonic romance which touches throughout.
As a way of critiquing this relationship, which in many ways acts as a metaphor for the relationship between India and Britain, we also follow the fictional lives of young lovers Rani and Hari, who have made their way over from India in order to try and make a living in London as a Lascar (a sailor used for trading) and an Ayah (a nanny for English children). They are separated early in the play, and we follow their lives and struggles which demonstrate their country’s lack of representation. Along the way, we meet Dadabhai Naoroji (Vincent Ebrahim), the first Indian MP in Britain, and Ghandi (Ankur Bahl), both of whom fight for the Indian cause throughout but end up disaffected and frustrated with the lack of progress.
As is often the case with Rice, she tells this story with flair and imagination. Lez Brotherston’s dock-like set, complete with rigging, sails and water, hints towards the transitional stage in which all of these characters find themselves, whilst Stu Barker and Sheema Mukherjee’s score mixes musical influences from the two cultures and helps the ensemble to tell their story with soulful renditions from Dom Coyote and Jap Jit Kaur. Max White’s video design is projected onto canvas, gauze and flags in a way which can transform the stage in moments, but never distracts from the live action. Similarly, a vivid and warm glow is added by Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting, which utilises hanging lanterns and creates a celebratory atmosphere when necessary.
We are treated to a true ensemble, and though there are characters whose stories we follow, it never feels like any actors are underused. At the emotional centre is Anneika Rose’s Rani, responding to the ever-changing and varied world around her in quiet wide-eyed wonder and countered beautifully by Tamzin Griffin’s loud, brash tavern-owner Sally. The relationship between Edney’s Victoria and Tony Jayawardena’s Karim is played with relish, each bouncing lightly off the other’s sense of humour. The work they put in pays off in a final scene, when the latter stages a Bharatanatyam for the wheelchair-bound Queen so that she may experience a flavour of the country she loves. The gesture and response are expertly rendered, and it’s the closest I’ve come to crying in the theatre since Alex Waldmann’s break down in King John last year.
There is something slightly unsettling about the preponderance of Union Jacks in the piece, and the monarchy and the establishment aren’t critiqued nearly enough when given room to meaning that the tone sometimes falls just short of jingoistic, but the historical setting allows this to be forgiven somewhat. And even then, the joy and inventiveness with which The Empress is staged is welcome in what has been a fairly staid few months for the RSC. Gupta and Rice may sometimes fail to exploit the moral ambiguities of the period, but when they create a production with such gusto it’s hard not to be moved.