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The Empress

Tanika Gupta (Lyric Hammersmith, 4 – 28 October 2023)


Review By Karla Williams


The arrival of South Asians in the UK is often assumed to have begun around the 1950s and 60s, following the Second World War, Indian Independence and Partition in 1947 and the breakup of the British Empire. But Tanika Gupta’s epic and sweeping new drama explores the less well-known stories of those who settled in Britain around 150 years ago.


It’s 1887, and sixteen-year-old Rani Das is on a boat headed for England, accompanying an English family as their nanny. During the voyage she befriends Hari, an Indian sailor working on board the ship, Dadabhai, an Indian politician, and Abdul, en route to work as a servant for Queen Victoria. As the boat arrives in Tilbury Docks, it marks the beginning of four very different journeys. The family Rani works for abandons her upon arrival, Dadabhai pursues his ambition to become the first Indian politician elected to UK government, Hari becomes a campaigner for equal treatment with white sailors, and Abdul develops a friendship with Queen Victoria which leads to shock and scandal within the royal court.    


The Empress explores the journeys of multiple characters but the plight of Rani and the relationship between Abdul Karim and Queen Victoria take centre stage. Tanya Katyal shines in the role of Rani, capturing her youthful naivety and disappointment superbly. But even as the character matures and becomes a mother, Katyal is still able to retain elements of Rani’s youthful sensibility. Alexandra Gilbreath is a joy to watch in her role as Queen Victoria and she provides much of the drama’s comic relief alongside the hilarious Avita Joy playing Firoza, an eccentric and wily ayah who knows her way around the mean streets of London and who takes Rani under her wing. 


Gupta’s writing is flawless and she’s crafted a play able to capture the complexity of British rule in India during the 19th century as well as the intimate relatability of one jilted woman’s support of a fellow survivor. Her characters are beautifully and empathetically drawn; their warmth instantly endearing them to the audience.


The scale and grandeur of the production, with a cast of nearly twenty, is what you come to expect of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The stage is split into two levels and scenes transition with magnificent ease and sophistication between the Royal Palace, the ship’s lower deck and Tilbury Dockside. Despite its running time of two hours and ten minutes (plus interval), The Empress is a visually and emotionally engaging drama which continues to delight. 


Yet what is most impressive about the play is its ability to educate about a spectrum of unstoried South Asian migrants who have been shaping British history long before the post-war period. Dadabhai Naoroji was the first Indian MP to be elected to the UK House of Commons. He represented the constituency of Finsbury Central in 1892 and was the most important leader in India before Mahatma Gandi. But until I watched The Empress, I’d never heard of him.