Sunday, June 16

The Empress – Lyric Hammersmith

Tanika Gupta takes on the mammoth task of weaving three narratives spanning over 13 years marking the golden era of the British Empire under the rule of Queen Victoria with her Golden Jubilee celebration. Directed by Pooja Ghai, The Empress reveals the larger truths about Asians, especially Indian Ayahs and lascars in Victorian Britain.

A boat carries Rani (Tanya Katyal), an Indian Ayah accompanying a British family, Hari (Aaron Gill), a lascar/sailor, political leaders Dadabhai Naoroji (Simon Rivers), Gandhi (Anish Roy), and Abdul Karim (Raj Bajaj), an Indian servant meant to be a gift to Queen Victoria for her golden jubilee, to the cold British Isles, all with different expectations and dreams. As their narratives progress, colonial atrocities are revealed. While a 16-year-old Rani is dismissed on arrival, she finds herself with Hari in a sailors’ lodging run by Lascar Sally (Nicola Stephenson) later to be impregnated by an abusive British master. She eventually rises above it all being resourceful, inquisitive and intelligent and finds her community (Avita Jay, Premi Tamang, and Lauren Patel) in a Christian charity sheltering Indian Ayahs, growing to be an assistant to Dadabhai helping the Indian political movement. Simultaneously, Kareem’s bold, honest, and sincere temperament coupled with his tales on Agra’s culture and history finds him a new position as ‘Munshi’ (teacher) to Queen Victoria (Alexandra Gilbreath), only to be banished after her death. While Dadabhai goes on to become the first Indian MP in the British House of Commons, Hari goes from being a laid-back, fatalistic sailor to actively fighting for equal rights as the white sailors to eventually finding peace as a shop-owner in London.

Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Ghai’s direction is lyrical and somewhat stylised creating some brilliant moments; the highlight being Kareem bringing India to an ageing Queen Victoria using Indian market visual and soundscapes, silks and cultural dance. Gupta’s writing, however, seems a little underwhelming affecting the pace and depth of both the story and the performance, covering large areas of history but missing out on revealing contradictions, emotions and humane truth of those involved in the story. Gilbreath’s Victoria is witty, powerful and jolly with a sprightly delivery. She is the most entertaining character followed by Bajaj’s Karim who is funny in a distinct manner. Lady Sarah (Francesca Faridany) is convincing as a snooty spokesperson of Edward VII. Katyal’s Rani is bright and expressive and plays a believable arc from 16 to late twenties. The writing could have juiced more gravitas in her performance which I think was missing. Gill’s Hari is goofy and clumsy. Their union seemed a little too forced like many other elements in this production. Rivers’ Naoroji is paternal and exact as the revered political leader.

Rosa Maggiora’s set is neat and compartmentalised with hues of brown and blue occasionally merging with the horseshoe that changes lights to match land and sea, commoners and royalty. Hinal Pattani, Ben & Max Ringham’s music is simply gorgeous on its own with Matt Haskins’ lights- both adding to the lyrical mood of the play. 

The play is entertaining and historically faithful, but it seems forced and obvious at many junctures. What I have enjoyed the most is Ghai’s skilful staging beautifully bringing together these diverse timelines, characters and stories. 

Running till October 28th at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre.

Reviewer: Khushboo Shah

Reviewed: 10th October 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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