Review: *** (3 stars) The Empress, Swan Theatre and London, until 18th November
Steve Sutherland finds The Empress perfectly pleasant if not predictable...
Last year AQA, the biggest examination board in England, took the commendable decision to introduce four works by non-white writers into its A-level and GCSE drama curricula as part of a move to update and revise its qualifications to ensure they better reflect the diversity of students and their teachers. The Empress by Tanika Gupta was one of the plays to be studied at GCSE and it’s easy to see why. A portrayal of immigrants arriving to the UK from India in the late 1800s, it seeks to set out the injustices imposed around the globe by the expanding British Empire in much the same way, though less experimentally as, say, Mojisola Adebayo’s Wind / Rush Generation(s) looked at immigration from the Caribbean in 1948.
There’s no doubting it’s a history lesson vital to be told and this dramatisation does that job admirably, just the ticket for school trips of 15-year-olds looking for enlightenment and a little light entertainment where you can boo the baddies and cheer the underdog. Beyond that, though, it’s lacking.
Mixing real persons with made-up characters, the narrative is crystal clear but shallow, more intent on delivering its message than providing the audience with a drama of any real depth or poignancy. There are two main strands to the plot. Rani Das, a 16-year-old Indian nanny to an English family arrives by boat with her charges only to be told on the dock she’s now surplus to requirements. She’s all alone in London, comes a cropper at the hands of one of her predatory employers, gets pregnant and eventually carves out a career for herself working for Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian MP to be elected to the House Of Commons. She finally reunites with her long-lost on-board boyfriend, Hari, who's been indentured to crew on cruel ships for years out on the briny. The other story involves Abdul Karim who is gifted to Queen Victoria as a servant. She thinks he’s marvellous, everyone else thinks he’s Rasputin.
The characters are OK as far as it goes but they don’t really go much further than caricature, delivering observations on their various plights, railing against the Empire, insisting on equality…that kind thing. Worthy? Indisputably. Realistic? Not on your Nelly. All the upper classes are racist cads, all the lawd-love-a-duckers living on the breadline have hearts of gold. That said, Tanya Katyal easily elicits our sympathy as Rani Das, the put-upon heroine of the piece, Nicola Stephenson’s brothel madam Lascar Sally is a vibrant but familiar creation straight of of Dickens, Francesca Faradany carries out her duties as Queen Vic’s lady-in-waiting with appropriate propriety, Aaron Gill’s Hari’s a bit of drip to be honest, and Raj Bajaj’s Abdul Karim is somewhat of a mystery in that we are left undecided whether he’s a chancer preying on the affections of the Queen in her dotage or a breath of fresh air in the fusty royal court. Mostly, though, he’s a cypher to reveal the establishment’s entrenched racism.