Thursday 13 October 2016

#ReadaPlayaWeek: The Empress

It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.

Week 41: Tanika Gupta’s The Empress (2013)

I’m fairly certain that this blog won’t capture the ambitious scope and scale of The Empress. Similarly, reading it wouldn’t pay credence to the colour and imagination typical of Emma Rice’s style in her production at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, a production which included puppetry, singing and video design.

Set in the last 14 years of Queen Victoria’s reign (and life), the play has three main plot strands which ebb and flow in and out of focus. Firstly, there is the love story of Rani, an Indian Ayah (a nanny for English families), and Hari, a lascar (shipmate) who are reunited after spending years and oceans apart. Then there is Queen Victoria’s ambivalent fondness of Abdul Karim who has come from India to be her servant and munshi. Finally, there is the rise to power of Dadabhai Naoriji, the first Asian man to become a British politician, followed by his quick disillusionment and return to India. Gupta takes us from ships and London dockyards to rooms in Palaces and grimy boarding houses. On the way, we meet sideline but certainly memorable characters including Lascar Sally, the British woman looking after the sailors in more ways than one; Lady Sarah, Victoria’s dutiful lady in waiting whose jealousy for the fondness afforded to Abdul Karim might stem from racial prejudice; and Lord Oakham, whose kindness towards Rani by giving her a bed and a job is rebuked when he finds out she is pregnant with his baby. Even Gandhi is in the play.

‘Theatre is often best’, I think Alan Bennett wrote, ‘when it’s school’. That’s what is partly so captivating about The Empress. I didn’t know much about the different plotlines in the play but it’s also full of criticisms of the Empire and nationalism. Some, I felt, feel a little tagged on or as if they have been written with the benefit of hindsight. Lady Sarah says that Britain’s ‘destiny is to bring civilisation to the world’ whereas Dadabhai criticises Britain for not doing enough to stop the famine in India, and argues that Britain’s continuing approach to its empire harbours ‘misplaced jingoistic ideas of nationalism’. But it’s more than just a history lesson. Regarding race, class and nationalism, The Empress skewers many contemporary issues. And in the closing moments of act one, despite them never meeting, Gupta brings together Queen Victoria and Rani in a tableau which highlights all their differences and similarities.

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