The Empress review at Swan Theatre Stratford-upon-Avon
The stage of the Swan has been designed to resemble the London docks, a place of arrival and intersection, for Tanika Gupta’s new play, which sees her reunite with Kneehigh’s Emma Rice, the director of Wah! Wah! Girls. The Empress traces the stories of several characters who find themselves far from the heat of home, in an often chilly and unwelcoming land in the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.
The most notable of these narrative strands concerns the elderly queen herself and the intimate friendship which develops between her and her proud Indian manservant, Abdul Karim. He becomes a rare friend to her and she rewards him with the title of munshi – teacher. Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian member of parliament, also features, but their stories are all secondary to the fictional account of Rani Das, a young woman who is brought over to England as an ayah (nursemaid) only to be cast off by her employers and forced to fend for herself.
As engaging as Anneika Rose is as Rani, her story feels the least compelling – a composite narrative, shorn of any real sense of desperation or peril, despite the hardships she faces. The relationship between Beatie Edney’s Queen Victoria and Tony Jayawardena’s proud Karim is far more intriguing but the play only skims the surface of their bond. The staging, however, is vibrant, fusing puppetry and projection, and the whole thing comes roaringly gloriously to life in the many musical sequences composed by Stu Barker and Sheema Mukherjee, the latter of whom perches on a platform above the audience throughout, like the figurehead on the prow of a ship.
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, April 11-May 4
- Tanika Gupta
- Emma Rice
- Cast includes
- Beatie Edney, Anneika Rose, Tony Jayawardena, Ray Panthaki, Vincent Ebrahim, Ankur Bahl, Tamsin Griffin
- Running time
- 2hrs 40mins