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The Empress - Royal Shakespeare Company Review

Reviewed by Mark Johnson

Disclaimer: tickets were gifted in return for a review

Tanika Gupta's 2013 play returns to the Swan Theatre delivering a tale of empire, race, class and love. 

Tanya Katyal (Rani Das) and Aaron Gill (Hari). Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Gupta's play mixes fiction with reality in Victorian Britain as the story follows 4 people on a voyage from India to London hoping to start a new life. 

Set in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, the show begins on the boat as the passengers are on their voyage ahead of arriving at Tilbury Docks. There's 16-year-old Rani, an Indian 'ayah' (a nursemaid), a lascar (sailor) Hari, Abdul Karim who is to be a waiter for Queen Victoria and the politician Dadabhai Naoroji. 

Once docked Rani is instantly dismissed as a nursemaid and is left to fend for herself, separated from Hari and a blossoming romance she faces racism and abuse including being sexually abused which leaves her pregnant with a child she initially tries to leave behind. Tanya Katyal majestically carries Rani's journey with hopeful determination despite the barriers she faces.  

Aaron Gill is a hopelessly romantic as Hari, searching for Rani and himself suffering racism especially when he raises his voice for equality between the white and the black sailors which sees him beaten and dismissed. The central relationship formed with Rani is warm and hopeful in a world that often seems against both.

Rani’s friendship with Dadabhai Naoroji, who himself deserves his own play, is another key component of her journey. Naoroji became known as ‘The Grand Old Man of India’ and became the first Indian MP to be elected to the UK House of Commons. Simon Rivers gives a compelling performance and delivers and passionate speech in parliament.

Abdul Karim’s relationship with Queen Victoria has most recently been made into a movie adaptation starring Judi Dench in Victoria and Abdul. Gupta’s text explores the relationship and the scrutiny that is constantly placed on it with all in the royal court casting suspicion that Victoria constantly bats back. 

Raj Bajaj (Abdul Karim), Alexandra Gilbreath (Queen Victoria) and Francesca Faridany (Lady Sarah). Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Francesca Faridany impresses as snooty Lady Sarah who tries to break the forming relationship as Karim moves up from waiter to become the Queen’s Munshi (teacher). Raj Bajaj as Karim wonderfully battles back and gives an all-round brilliant performance creating a key believable relationship with Alexandra Gilbreath’s Queen Victoria which culminates in a fantastically scene as an elderly Victoria is treated to the sights and sounds of India brought to her through music, dance, food and costume. The contrast between this and the next scene after Victoria’s death and Karim is dismissed back to India with all mementos and letters between the pair to be returned or burnt is a reminder of the stark reality that black people faced.

Gilbreath herself gives a fantastically well-rounded performance and is clearly enjoying playing the regal and imperious Queen. She strikes the balance of being light and humorous when around Abdul Karim and being regal as the Monarch. 

Race and class are a clear divide throughout the production and director Pooja Ghai and designer Rosa Maggiora inventively stage the production using an elevated level for much of the Royal scenes to distinguish class divide. Maggiora’s design cleverly contrasts the worlds and uses the space in the Swan well. Matt Haskins lighting adds a rich tapestry of light and dark when is fitting. 

The themes of racism and class remain ever-relevant and Gupta’s sublime writing and the entire company’s engaging delivery means that the three-hour performance moves at a swift pace. It may not be subtle in any way but it's educational and is endlessly watchable. 

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Empress plays in rep at The Swan Theatre until 18th November with the show playing at London’s Lyric Hammersmith from 4th to 28th October. Visit

The company of The Empress. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

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