Saturday, 20 April 2013

Theatre review: The Empress

When did the House of Commons get its first Indian-born MP? I suspect most people wouldn't guess 1892, when Dadabhai Naoroji was elected MP for Finsbury Central, serving for 3 years. (Of course we'd already had a Jewish Prime Minister by then so perhaps a bit of diversity in the Victorian Houses of Parliament isn't that surprising.) Naoroji shows up as a supporting character in Tanika Gupta's The Empress, which shows South Asian people being a familiar sight in London long before the 1950s' wave of immigration. It opens with a ship arriving from India, two of whose passengers we'll be following: Abdul Karim (Tony Jayawardena) has been sent as a gift to Queen Victoria, a manservant to serve her breakfast. His air of superiority antagonises much of the royal family and household staff, but the Queen (Beatie Edney) is charmed by Karim, promoting him to be her "Munshi" or teacher, to teach her Hindi and about the country she's Empress of but has never visited.

The title of Gupta's play could also apply though to another passenger on the ship, as her name is Rani (Anneika Rose,) an ayah or nanny hired by an English family. Having looked after their children in India and on the voyage to England, Rani is immediately dismissed in favour of an English nanny and left to fend for herself. She finds an Indian subculture led by Lascar Sally (Tamzin Griffin,) one of the white women viewed with contempt because of her relationships with Asian men, and eventually finds herself helping Naoroji (Vincent Ebrahim) in his efforts to stop the Empire draining India of its resources.

The subject of a forgotten piece of history interested me but after Steptoe and Son I was a bit apprehensive about another piece directed by Emma Rice. Luckily the inevitable musical interludes fit the tone of the play, with Stu Barker and Sheema Mukherjee setting Gupta and Dom Coyote's lyrics to music, these songs also quite organically incorporated into the action, mostly during scene changes. But perhaps the most clever musical representation of the culture clash in the play is having Elgar's Nimrod arranged for sitar. Lez Brotherston's designs see the stage surrounded by water, perhaps mirroring Rani's comments about feeling stuck on this island, as well as helping provide a very striking, touching image near the end of the play.

As had happened with Billy Connolly before him, Queen Victoria also found gossip going round about her relationship with Abdul Karim, and its true nature will never be known as Edward VII had all their correspondence destroyed as soon as he took the throne. Gupta doesn't suggest any physical relationship, but Edney does portray an unexpectedly giggly, flirtatious Queen Victoria who's thoroughly likeable and a bit vulnerable.

In the parallel storyline, Rose also gives a strong performance as Rani goes from 16-year-old lost in a foreign land, to single mother, to empowered political assistant; all the time hoping for a reunion with Hari (Ray Panthaki,) the man she didn't realise she loved until he'd left. Hari gets a sub-plot of his own as he fights for the rights of the lascars (Indian sailors) who are underpaid and treated with contempt.

This does bring up one of the problems with The Empress though - in her attempt to show a diverse picture of the Indian experience in 1890s London Gupta overloads the play, and it is rather too long. Also, apart from the moments at the start and end where the two main plots meet, Rice doesn't really manage to make it feel like a single flowing story. But there's certainly some interesting history being unearthed here, plus some strong performances (Rina Fatania is a lot of fun as a more experienced ayah.) And there's some clever ideas in the staging, including Brotherston's bolting a little balcony for the sitar player onto the first gallery, to help fill the room with Indian sounds. Not essential viewing, but interesting enough.

The Empress by Tanika Gupta is booking until the 4th of May at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

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