Sunday, 11 February 2018

Theatre review: The Captive Queen

If David Lan leaving the Young Vic has been compared to the ravens leaving the Tower, then what do we call Barrie Rutter stepping down as Artistic Director of Northern Broadsides, the company he founded a quarter of a century ago? The 71-year-old clearly has no plans to retire completely, as he'll be part of Michelle Terry's upcoming first season at the Globe, and before that his final production for Northern Broadsides is also the final show in Terry's predecessor's winter season. John Dryden's tragicomedy Aureng-zebe is named after its painfully noble and loyal male lead, but Rutter's production renames it The Captive Queen, after the woman whose beauty and charm captivates a whole court. Rutter himself plays the ageing Emperor, false reports of whose death have kicked off a civil war between his four sons over who gets to succeed him.

The two eldest brothers have been swiftly beaten by the third, Aurangzeb (Naeem Hayat,) the only one still loyal to his father and fighting on his behalf; the youngest and most ruthless brother is still at large.


If he expects gratitude from his father, though, Aurangzeb will be disappointed: He has been promised in marriage to Indamora (Neerja Naik,) a foreign queen kept at court as the spoils of a past war, but while he's been off fighting the Emperor has become obsessed with Indamora himself. The couple remain loyal to each other despite his threats and promises, and as punishment Aurangzeb is disinherited in favour of the youngest son - but with power so close, Morat (Dharmesh Patel) isn't willing to wait for his father to step down in his own time.


In keeping with Northern Broadsides' commitment to performing classics in Northern accents, the production is set in a textiles factory, the cloths cut to make costumes that evoke the story's Indian setting, and banners in colours representing the four sons draped over the stage to show who's winning the war at any given point in the play. One noticeable effect of this is that designer Jessica Worrall has provided a whitewashed brick wall covering the "jewelbox" of the Swanamaker's stage, transforming the space. Designers have long felt free to impose a distinct look on productions in the main house but have seemed a bit more reticent to cover the intricate designs indoors; having seen productions experiment with the space and the use of candelight in the newer venue, it's interesting to see what is hopefully the start of a bolder use of design as well.


The factory setting doesn't, in all honesty, play into the rest of the story much, although the punch card clock on the wall provides a good gag in a play whose torrid obsessions come with a light touch overall: Aurangzeb and his father aren't the only ones to fall for the captive queen, with her jailor Arimant (Silas Carson) willing to do anything for her, and by the time Morat also declares his love the situation has edged into the ridiculous. Aurangzeb too comes in for some unwanted romantic attention from his stepmother Nourmahal, Angela Griffin relishing the chance to play harridan-turned-flirt.


The female characters are also the ones to provide a warmer side to the story though, as Indamora and Morat's wife Melesinda (Sarah Ridgeway) reject the expectation that they be rivals and become supportive friends instead. The casting is also a nice demonstration of how colour-blind casting actually works, and that it doesn't have to mean a couple of token non-white faces: Dryden's setting of the story in India is nominal (all the characters' points of reference seem to come from Greek rather than Indian mythology) so they could easily have gone another way with it, but what we get is a handful of white and black actors in a predominantly Asian cast.


Dryden's writing may have been a running joke in Nell Gwynn, and his love of cheesy rhyming couplets means it's not entirely unjustified, but The Captive Queen also balances well between a premise straight out of tragedy, and lovers' misunderstandings straight out of comedy, with clear and brisk storytelling taking us through its characters' tangled love lives.

The Captive Queen (Aureng-Zebe) by John Dryden is booking in repertory until the 4th of March at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Nobby Clark.

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