Reviews are coming in for The Empress by Tanika Gupta, which is playing at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, and coming to the Lyric Hammersmith in London in October 2023.
The cast includes Raj Bajaj as Abdul Karim, Miriam Grace Edwards as Charlotte / Georgina, Francesca Faridany as Lady Sarah, Alexandra Gilbreath as Queen Victoria, Aaron Gill as Hari, Anyebe Godwin as Serang / Lascar, Oliver Hembrough as Sir John Oakham / William / Painter.
Directed by Pooja Ghai, the play spans a period of 13 years over the ‘Golden Era’ of the Victorian Empire, taking audiences from the rugged gangways of Tilbury docks to the grandeur of Queen Victoria’s Palace, whilst unveiling the long and embedded culture of British Asian history which continues to shape our society today.
The wider creative team includes Design by Rosa Maggiora, Lighting by Matt Haskins, Music and Sound by Ben and Max Ringham, Movement by Wayne Parsons, Fights and Intimacy by Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown.
The Empress is playing at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to 15 September, and again from 1 – 18 November 2023. It comes to the Lyric Hammersmith in London from 4 to 28 October 2023.
Read reviews from the Guardian, Telegraph, Times and more, with further reviews to be added.
The Empress reviews
"Resonant survival tales of Victorian Britain"
"Tanika Gupta’s historical drama has only got more relevant since 2013, but there’s an awful lot of migration stories to get through in three hours"
"A tale of people travelling across oceans to build a new life in the UK, only to be met with hostility and exploitation, has surely grown more relevant in the intervening decade."
"Pooja Ghai’s busy new production, opening as the original did at the Swan theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, eventually settles down. It doesn’t overemphasise the contemporary resonances, instead leaving the audience to do the work"
"Even with Gupta’s skill, and a three-hour running time, there is only so much justice you can do to three stories... But the cast are uniformly outstanding."
"A Victorian double romance with cinematic sweep"
"Smoothly piloted by a new director, Pooja Ghai, and featuring some fine performances, this well-appointed production is ultimately both winning and unexpectedly touching. If Gupta’s revamp — she has revised the script for the revival — occasionally seems a tad musty and drawn in overly broad strokes, it still feels relevant, especially considering our present government’s controversial immigration strategies."
"Gupta provides plenty of context for both relationships, much of it unsurprisingly damning in terms of the exploitative behaviour and prejudicial attitudes of the white westerners. She also strikes a highly workable balance between fact and fiction, and the personal and the political."
"The Empress may not always succeed as complex drama, but as a historically fascinating slice of popular entertainment with an at times almost cinematic sweep it delivers the goods."
"More dryly explanatory than fiercely revelatory"
"An important historical retelling that lacks an emotional core"
"If scale makes good drama, then Tanika Gupta’s 2013 play spanning 13 years across the ‘golden years’ of the empire, should feel cataclysmic... But even with a habitat so rich in emotional potential, Gupta’s writing is undercharged and manages to dissociate us from the heart of these people’s stories."
"Under the lyrical direction of Pooja Ghai, the play does find its feet – if only for a passing second. The Indian actors turn their accents up and down in the presence of white people, making their difference stark on stage. In one moment where the magic of India comes alive before our eyes, the stage sings as a maelstrom of colour, life, song and dance. It is just a shame that this luminous sense of vigour is so sparse."
"A splendid Queen Victoria – but history is messier than this"
"Tanika Gupta’s tale of British-Indian relations during Empire is fascinating on paper but suffers from a broad-brushstroke approach"
"Gupta’s play, enjoyably restaged by director Pooja Ghai, is – on paper at least – a fascinating examination of the not-so-reciprocal relationships between Britain and India during 13 tumultuous years of Empire through the prism of three under-reported pocket histories."
"Despite the detail she crams in, we get the sort of broad-brushstroke approach that serves up history for the easy consumption of its audiences, rather than immerse them deep in its messy contradictions. For all the sparkle Tanya Katyal brings to Rani, Rani’s journey to eventual sanctuary to the real life Home for Ayahs in Aldgate feels irredeemably emblematic."
"All this is pretty interesting, and Pooja Ghai’s production has its moments. Alexandra Gilbreath brings mischief and wit to Victoria, horrifying her lady-in-waiting (Francesca Faridany) by treating the Munshi as a human being."
"Gupta resorts to extensive use of Uncle Coincidence to intertwine the stories. If that isn’t annoying enough, she throws in clunky political emphasis, with digs about the beastliness of British imperialism. You can’t go to the Royal Shakespeare Company these days without being given a political lecture. More problematic artistically is the difficulty of running three stories at once and giving each enough air to develop the characters beyond caricature."
"It’s well short of the standard Stratford used to attain, but in recent years I have seen plenty worse."
"A stark tale of Britain's colonial past"
"Tanika Gupta's The Empress weaves fictional tales with true stories to reflect prejudice in Imperial Britain during Queen Victoria's reign"
"Tanya Katyal, making her debut here at the RSC, is superb portraying an innocent 16 year old Rani and growing before our eyes into a resourceful, strong woman. Alexandra Gilbreath is excellent as a witty and no nonsense Queen Victoria as is Raj Bajaj as her funny, loyal servant."
"Gupta brilliantly weaves plenty of humour into this stark tale of subjugation, it's shocking but still pertinent. It's a story of an uncomfortable past but also a celebration of culture and strength."