The Empress – April 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Tanika Gupta

Directed by Emma Rice

Company: RSC

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 15th April 2013

Both Steve and I had the sniffles tonight, him because he had a cold and me because the final scenes of this new play were very moving. The play covers a lot of ground, and there will be more to come with this production which at times is a bit jumbled, but the music, singing, dancing and colours plus the splendid performances made for a refreshing take on a neglected aspect of Victorian history. We’ve found Emma Rice’s work with Kneehigh to be variable in the past, but this time she’s produced a real good ‘un.

The set was a major contributor to the evening’s entertainment, so I’d better describe that first. We could see echoes of several recent productions in the initial layout, and wondered if Lez Brotherston had simply toured the RSC workshops looking for cast-offs. The floor of the stage had been raised to allow for water, as with the Shipwreck Trilogy, but I can confirm right now that no audience members were splashed in the course of the performance; at least, none that I could see. The decking of the stage floor was cut away in a ragged shape, leaving water exposed at the front and both sides, with angled ramps leading across the water from the walkways. This did reduce the performance area a bit, but it didn’t seem to slow things down or cause the production to be too static, which was quite an achievement.

At the beginning there were trunks and suitcases piled towards the back of the stage, which reminded Steve of a previous Hamlet, while the waves lapping on the screen at the back could have been outtakes from the recent Winter’s Tale footage. The screen was suspended just in front of the balcony area, and there were strips of screen on either side which were removed later to reveal narrow flats showing London buildings. And if we didn’t already get the nautical theme, there were ropes strung from corner to corner and out into the auditorium. When the central screen was raised, it curved out like a sail at the balcony level and usually showed a black and white Union Jack on which the date was occasionally displayed. Behind it there were wide stairs just off centre leading up to the balcony from the back wall – probably had to be wide to accommodate those massive bustles the women were wearing – and not much else. A curtain or two could be drawn across to suggest different locations, and even with furniture and the usual props being brought on and taken off, the pace of the show never flagged.

Most of the musicians were located behind the second level side balconies and were rather obscured by the railings, which was a shame. The middle side balconies had been opened up and each had been given its own small thrust – no rail to get in the way, so mind the drop! Singers stood there, characters stood or sat there from time to time, and they were very much part of the performance space.

Facing all this, a platform had been placed in front of the middle level of the seating, and the reason for the doors only being opened about fifteen minutes before the start became clear.

Sheema Mukherjee playing the Sitar in The Empress. Photo by Steve Tanner

Sheema Mukherjee playing the Sitar in The Empress. Photo by Steve Tanner

Sheema Mukherjee – sitar, clarinet and vocals according to the free cast list – sat there for the entire performance, playing absolutely wonderful music as required. The platform had been decked out in true Indian style, with swags of orange garlands and the like, and looked magnificent. It would be interesting to see this again from a side angle, when the platform would be more in view. We were next to the right hand walkway tonight, and it meant turning completely away from the stage to see what she was doing.

The music was another great element in this production. There were two designated singers, although everyone in the cast joined in from time to time. The main two were Dom Coyote and Japjit Kaur, and not only did they have lovely voices, the songs they sang blended English words and Indian rhythms perfectly. I didn’t catch all the words, and the singing blocked out some of the dialogue in the early scenes, but the overall effect was tremendous.

The costumes were an eclectic mix, with only Queen Victoria and her court being fully (and splendidly) dressed throughout the play. Many of the other characters wore part European, part Indian clothes, and there were modern touches here and there. The women often wore the bustle without the skirt, which made for quicker changes, but did look a bit peculiar as well. The idea behind this was to avoid too much realism in the look of the production, something I’m more than happy to go along with. The children were nothing but their costumes; with their clothes held by other actors they were puppetry without the puppets, and it worked very well.

Back with the actual play, there are four Indian characters whose stories we followed; two were real people, the other two were representatives of their group. Dadabhai Naoroji, played by Vincent Ebrahim, was an older man, a Parsi who came to England because he believed in British fair play. He hoped to influence British attitudes to India through the political system, becoming the first elected British MP from the Indian subcontinent. He found the British establishment reluctant to give much time to the issues affecting India when there were more pressing matters closer to home – Irish Home Rule was the big talking point in those days. He finally returned to India, disillusioned but determined to work through the Indian National Congress to strengthen the political structure in his homeland.

The second real character was Abdul Karim (Tony Jayawardena), who had been sent as a present to Queen Victoria (Beatie Edney) so that she might know something of the country over which she was Empress. She took to Abdul so much that she appointed him her teacher and gave him the title of Munshi, which upset the Royal household enormously.

Kristin Hutchinson as Lady Sarah and Beatie Edney as Queen Victoria in The Empress. Photo by Steve Tanner

Kristin Hutchinson as Lady Sarah and Beatie Edney as Queen Victoria in The Empress. Photo by Steve Tanner

They were represented by one character, Lady Sarah (Kristin Hutchinson), who bridled at every minor breach of royal protocol, and was practically apoplectic at Abdul’s promotion to Munshi. Fortunately Victoria was able to handle this sort of thing until her final years, even enjoying the information that she was being gossiped about, at her age! Abdul outlived Victoria, and since his role as Munshi was not required by the new King, he also returned to India.

The fictional characters showed us life at the other end of the social spectrum. Rani (Anneika Rose) was a 16-year-old girl travelling as an ayah with an English family returning from India. She looked after their two children and had been promised a job when they arrived in England, but as soon as they landed the mother dismissed her, giving her references and some money. Rani couldn’t go back to India; not only did she not have enough money to pay her fare, but her family were depending on her to send back some of her earnings to help them. A sailor whom she had met on the boat and developed a relationship with, Hari (Ray Panthaki), helped her out for the first night by taking her to a very rough and ready doss house run by Lascar Sally (Tamzin Griffin), a white woman who enjoyed having sex with many of the dark-skinned lascars who stayed with her. Rani managed to get over her fear of the rats, but Hari’s assumption that they would also be having sex was too much for her and she ran off into the night.

Rani’s journey showed us the ruthless way that young girls from India were treated in England at that time. Taken on by another family to look after their children, she found the husband was only too ready to take advantage of her situation, seducing her with compliments and the hint of a promise that she would get money to send back to her family – nowadays we call it ‘grooming’ – and soon she was pregnant. That led to her dismissal – it was made clear that the previous ayahs had suffered the same fate – and she was desperate enough to attempt to abandon her baby at the docks possibly intending to kill herself. Fortunately she was spotted by Lascar Sally and another former ayah, Firoza (Rina Fatania). They helped Rani to accept her situation, and things began to improve. She and Firoza ended up in a home for ayahs, which Dadabhai Naoroji had helped to found, and eventually Rani went to work for him.

Meanwhile Hari had gone back to sea, but he always wrote to Rani – she had taught him to read and write – and planned to return and marry her someday.

Ray Panthaki as Hari and Anneika Rose as Rani in The Empress. Photo by Steve Tanner

Ray Panthaki as Hari and Anneika Rose as Rani in The Empress. Photo by Steve Tanner

An attempt to improve conditions for the Lascars, who were treated much worse than the white sailors, ended in failure and eventually Hari arrived back in London and took up furniture-making instead. After some time, he plucked up the courage to visit Dadabhai Naoroji and speak to Rani, and their reunion was very touching (sniff). The play finished with Rani and Hari left alone on Tilbury Docks, ready to make their future lives in England.

In addition to these characters, we saw a lot of Queen Victoria, appropriately enough, as well as glimpses of another well-known real person, Ghandi (Ankur Bahl). He was in his dandy phase during these years, travelling to England to learn French and ballroom dancing – we saw an example of that during the play. The stories often cut across one another, but apart from the early scenes being a little confusing, the story telling was very clear and there were a lot of nice touches. When Rani was looking for another job, she was advised to approach any white woman to ask for work. Despite the number of actors in the cast, there were problems having different actors play the several women whom Rani approached, so one actress, Emily Mytton, did them all, with only a brief pause to have a bit of her costume changed, all in sight of the audience. It worked very well, conveying the sense of repeated rejections nicely.

The cast of The Empress. Photo by Steve Tanner

The cast of The Empress. Photo by Steve Tanner

Towards the end, with Victoria very ill in a wheelchair, the Munshi orchestrated a lovely surprise for her – a display of Indian song and dance, performed by the rest of the company. It was his way of showing her the sights and sounds of India without her having to travel. An elephant was projected onto the screen at the back as well, and the whole effect was pretty amazing.

This was followed by Victoria’s death, with her body being laid out on a table centre stage. The changing attitude to the Munshi was clear – he was stripped of his robes and any letters he had received from the queen. As this went on, the papers taken from him were turned into little boats and floated on the water, then lit to create a beautiful effect with lots of floating candles. They’d all burned out by the end of the performance, but it was a lovely sight to see.

In some ways I’d have liked the play to end with the lively Indian song and dance; it would certainly have been a strong finish. But we needed to know what happened to the characters, so the final scenes were important too. With all the fuss over immigration that goes on today, it’s a salutary lesson to be reminded that it’s not a new phenomenon, and that people from all over the globe have been enriching our society for centuries. This was a very enjoyable performance, and I hope this play gets wider exposure; a short run in the Swan just isn’t enough.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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