Tanika Gupta gives us a post-colonial re-writing of British history at the Lyric Hammersmith.
The Empress has at its heart an interesting concept.
Three different stories about the interaction between three different Indian people as they encounter their British rulers.
The Empress herself is of course Queen Victoria, Empress of India.
Gupta reheats the bizarre story of her relationship with Mohammed Abdul Karim, her companion and language teacher (Munshi) in later years.
Alexandra Gilbreath is excellent as Victoria, and captures her humour and contradictions well.
Likewise, Raj Bajaj is very believable as the Munshi, and Francesca Faridany is villainous as the racist snob Lady Sarah who seeks to keep them apart.
But their story was well treated in the movie Victoria & Abdul, and little is added here.
Karim had limited political influence, other than getting Victoria to lobby for Hindu festivals to be rescheduled because they clashed with Muslim ones.
The idea of him lecturing her on the cruelty of Imperialism as Gupta writes, seems highly unlikely. Karim was just one of many scheming courtiers who ended up a rich man.
The main problem is that their story sits awkwardly with the other two.
Tanya Katyal is wonderful as Rani Das, a young Ayah who is cruelly abandoned by her British employer the moment they set foot in India.
She has fallen for Hari a sailor on her voyage over, well played by Aaron Gill, who is constantly brutalized and ill-treated by British officers.
Rani is taken into the household of Lord Oakham who promptly rapes her.
Nearly all the British characters in this play are villains. This is not a balanced view of history.
Later Rani becomes the secretary to Dadabhai Naoroji (Simon Rivers) a quite fascinating character. His is the third story.
Naoroji was the first Indian member of Parliament – in the nineteenth century.
Whilst his criticisms of British Imperialism are well aired here, that extraordinary fact itself is not properly explored.
Gupta exposes the numerous incidents of racism her three characters encounter, but dismisses as laughable the “British sense of fair play.”
It is a shame that over three hours these contradictions could not be unpacked with more nuance.
Pictures: The Empress Photos by Ellie Kurttz RSC
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