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The Empress

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Who was Abdul Karim? Gifted to Queen Victoria by Viceroy of India, Karim became Queen Victoria’s final, trenchant tie. Gupta recovers his tale from the dust filled annals of history and pitches the quest for equality back into the distant past.

Inspired by Rozina’s Visram’s Ayahs, Lascars and Princes, the play maps the experiences of Indian migrants in the Victoria age. Abdul Karim, a young Ghandi, political activist Dadabhai Naoroji and Rani, an ayah employed by a British family are all making their voyage to Britain. Their stories are crafted together with a refreshing splash of intelligence and insight.

Abdul Karim begins as Queen Victoria’s servant. Over time, his friendship and influence increase; “The servant whose turban matches the eggcup” is promoted to “mushi” or teacher. He flatters and uses her interest to his full advantage as she giggles excitedly, lapping up his every word and teaching. Tony Jayawardena and Beatie Edney play Karim and Queen Victoria respectively. The  chemistry between the two becomes the luminous jewel in Gupta’s production.

Gupta subtely draws parallels. She offers two Queens; one in standing, the other in name. Both women are restricted by their place in the world. As Queen Victoria is forced to defend her friendship, Rani is disserted by her British employers on arrival and struggles to find a place in the unwelcoming, cold foreign land.

Another parallel is drawn between politician Dadabhai Naoroji and Abdul Karim. Naoroji  makes a strident attempt to achieve equality, but goes back to India unheard. Whilst Abdul Karim experiences it momentarily, on account of his relationship with Queen Vicotria, before being forced back to India himself.

Admittedly, there’s a lot going on aboard Lez Brotherston’s deck-like set and a loss of momentum can be forgiven, for what is ultimately a sophisticated production. Those anticipating and hoping for a big musical number will not be disappointed. And mention must also be made of Ed Woodall, who is utterly convincing in every turn, including the more infant roles. There are also memorable performances by Tamzin Griffin as Laskar Sally, landlady of the sailor’s house and Krisitn Hutchinson as Lady Sarah.

Under the direction of Emma Rice in the intimate setting of the Swan theatre, Gupta makes anew a discourse that has for too long been confined to the decades of post 1960s immigration.  It’s a journey made more poignant by the images that are transposed onto a sail that’s whisked up to a heights of the intimate setting of the Swan theatre.

Amardeep Sohi