Imperialism is masterfully dissected in a play that features Queen Victoria, one of the first Asian MPs in Britain and also looks at South Asian lascars and ayahs who made Britain their home in 19th century…
By Suman Bhuchar
FRIENDSHIP and collaboration feature heavily when we meet Pooja Ghai and discuss how she approached ‘The Empress’ – written by one of the country’s leading playwrights, Tanika Gupta and first staged in 2013.
“I get inside her work, I get her voice, it resonates with me through my own lived experience, my artistic values and what I am seeking to explore and share conversations about,” Ghai told www.asianculturevulture.com.
‘The Empress’ is one of those rare works of a South Asian canon, that is enjoying a new production only ten years after it was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 2013 at the Swan Theatre, where it is also opening now.
This is an ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ type of story through our shared British imperial history.
Set during of the reign of Queen Victoria, it explores her own personal relationship with her secretary Abdul – juxtaposed alongside a love story between a lascar and a nanny, with other historical characters, such as politicians Dadabhai Naoroji and Muhammad Ali Jinnah dropping into scenes.
Part historical fact and part dramatised fiction, the show premieres in Stratford-Upon-Avon and then moves to London in October and returns to the Swan Theatre, ending in November.
The duo first met when Ghai acted in Gupta’s play ‘Meet The Mukherjees’ at Bolton Octagon in 2010.
“We were artistic friends and our personal relationship grew very strong.
“In this business, it’s not easy to find people to form deep friendships and we have a wide professional breadth as well, and I think artistically there was a synergy.”
Gupta and Ghai bonded after their first introduction and she also appeared in Gupta’s stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel, ‘Great Expectations’, as an actor, and this is another play Ghai will be remounting after ‘The Empress’.
It was during Ghai’s acting in ‘Great Expectations’ (a Watford Palace and English Touring Theatre co-production in 2011) that Ghai had a Eureka moment and felt she should be moving onto becoming a director.
The play had transposed the Dickens’ classic to a setting in India, but audiences at the time felt the connections between Britain and India were superficial and were not convinced, Ghai felt.
“India was not understood, fabrics were not understood, saris were not understood – because our culture had not been represented in that kind of authenticity on stage before, especially if we are doing a period piece.”
The fact we didn’t understand the texture, or the culture, the cottons where they came from, the history of how they had evolved was a huge eye opener for me, Ghai explained.
“I thought, oh my God! We need to be telling these stories in these period dramas. We need to own that space.”
Ghai will be staging Gupta’s adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’ as part of a Tamasha co-production with the Royal Exchange Manchester (opening on September 7 and running through till October 8).
It is no secret that there is huge mutual admiration between the two.
“I think it’s one of those relationships where you meet someone and artistically and personally, and you keep growing – there is a lot of love, a lot of trust and a lot of support.
“Tanika’s always supported me through my journey and if anything has opened doors around me. We’ve kind of gone along for the ride.”
It was Gupta who put Ghai forward when she went on to direct ‘Lions and Tigers’ at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London in 2017. Both bonded over the fact that there are not many plays focussing on the shared colonial past.
(This show is also on the cards to enjoy a remount by Tamasha).
“If we don’t understand what the British Empire was in all its glory and darkness, we don’t know what’s going on today,” Ghai stressed. “I think we need to hear these plays.”
“‘The Empress’ is a play I read ten years ago, I love it, it is so rich, it’s so sharp, it is political, it is full of rage, it is full of pain, it is full of love.
The characters are complex – Tanika’s got three intersecting worlds – she has the streets of Victorian London, she’s got the Royals and she’s got these Asian immigrants that were here in 1800s. That to me is an exciting world for us to explore.”
The earlier version of ‘The Empress’ was directed by Emma Rice (before she went onto become to artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe 2016-8) and it only had a three-week run at Stratford, so not many were able to see it.
Ten years on, there is a huge drive for putting out contested historical narratives – as well as diversifying the school curriculum through the teaching of history or literature which connects to a multi-cultural society.
Since then, the RSC has pushed for ‘The Empress’ to be one of the texts chosen for its pilot scheme – ‘Lit in Colour‘ – a campaign by publisher Penguin and The Runnymede Trust to increase the number of texts by Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers studied in schools and to support institutions and teachers access materials to assist with the learning.
Alongside this, the text of ‘The Empress’ has been added to the GSCE Edexcel syllabus and the GCSE AQA Drama syllabus, and it is hoped that a seven-month tour will stimulate and engage teachers and schools to come and watch the show and work with bespoke teaching materials to promote diversity.
‘The Empress’ itself is an epic play, spanning the last fourteen years of Queen Victoria’s life (1887-1901).
Four people meet on a ship carrying Indian immigrants to the UK and it follows each of their destinies as they land up in Britain.
Abdul Karim is about to be given as a present to Queen Victoria, for her Golden Jubilee, and begin work in the Royal Household, another is statesman, Dadabhai Naoroji and two young people, our lascar and ayah, are escaping poverty.
The show has an 18 strong cast with Raj Bajaj as Abdul Karim; Alexandra Gilbreath as Queen Victoria; Rani Das is the ayah, and played Tanya Katyal; and Aaron Gill, the lascar, Hari, and Simon Rivers plays Naoroji.
Gupta said that she was inspired by historian Rosina Visram’s book, ‘Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947’ – first published in 1986.
“It’s going to be extraordinary, it’s a big beast of a show,” enthused Ghai. “The cast are amazing. It is a living piece of history telling us stuff we don’t know.
“It is a celebration of our culture; it is an understanding of British culture and an understanding of imperialist ideology and the nuance of what that means. I think it would be a game changer for Stratford!”
Main picture: Lascars ensemble – Avita Jay, Tom Miligan (background), Chris Nayak, Joe Usher, Anyebe Godwin (background), Lauren Patel and Premi Tamang (edge of frame)
All pictures courtesy of RSC/©Ellie Kurttz
‘The Empress’ by Tanika Gupta at The Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Waterside, Stratford Upon Avon CV37 6BB from (July 7) to September 15. Check listings for times and matinees: https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-empress/
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, Lyric Square, King St, London W6 0QL from October 4-28
Check times and listings: https://lyric.co.uk/shows/the-empress/
Returns to RSC Stratford Upon Avon
from November 1-18.
3 Hours (including 20 minute interval)
The production is directed by Pooja Ghai with design by Rosa Maggiora. Lighting is 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, and casting by Matthew Dewsbury CDG and Martin Poile.