The Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) production of The Empress, by Tanika Gupta, has opened in the Swan Theatre for the Summer. This timely and evocative play is brought sharply into focus in 2023 and offers a fresh perspective on Britain’s relationship with its imperial past and how it continues to shape the country’s identity today.
The Empress is now running in the Swan Theatre until Friday 15 September 2023 before transferring to the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in London from Wednesday 4 October to Saturday 28 October. The production will then return to the Swan Theatre from Wednesday 1 November to Saturday 18 November 2023.
Erica Whyman, RSC Acting Artistic Director said: “The RSC has always believed it essential to support and celebrate the living writers who can expose new ways of seeing our collective history and conjure a brave new world that we don’t yet understand. The Empress by Tanika Gupta – now on the GCSE syllabus – presents an extraordinary friendship and a beautiful love story, whilst forensically exposing the blithe injustice of empire.”
Set in 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, the play tells the story of the sixteen-year-old Rani Das, ayah (nursemaid) to an English family, who arrives at Tilbury docks after a long voyage from India, to start a new life in Britain. On the boat, Rani befriends a lascar (sailor), an Indian politician and a royal servant destined to serve the Queen. Full of hopes and dreams of what lies ahead, they each embark on an extraordinary journey.
Spanning a period of 13 years over the ‘Golden Era’ of Empire, this epic drama takes 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.
Making her RSC debut, Tanya Katyal plays Rani Das. Her theatre credits include When Mountains Meet at Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow. Television credits include Netflix’s Eternally Confused and Eager for Love.
Raj Bajaj plays Abdul Karim. Raj’s previous RSC credits include Tamburlaine, Tartuffe and Much Ado About Nothing. Other recent theatre credits include Wildfire Road (Sheffield Crucible), Tartuffe (Birmingham Rep), Hobson’s Choice (Royal Exchange Manchester), Rapunzel (Stratford East), Lions & Tigers, The Merchant of Venice (Shakespeare’s Globe), East is East (Northern Stage/Nottingham Playhouse) and Bend It Like Beckham (Phoenix Theatre).
Alexandra Gilbreath plays Queen Victoria. Alexandra is an Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company, where her credits include; Cymbeline, The Provoked Wife, The Rover, Shakespeare Live!, A Midsummer Night’s Dreaming, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Twelfth Night for which she received an Olivier award nomination-for Best Supporting Actress, Merry Wives – The Musical, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tamer Tamed, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, The Winter’s Tale, Cyrano de Bergerac, Ghosts, The Country Wife, Love’s Labour’s Lost. Other theatre includes; The Sugar Syndrome at the Orange Tree; The Fever Syndrome, Mother Christmas at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs; The Lie at Menier Chocolate Factory; Dessert at Southwark Playhouse; The Wars of the Roses, Hayfever at the Rose Kingston; The Invisibles at the Bush; A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Hong Kong Philharmonic; The Village Bike, Disappeared at the Royal Court; Shallow Slumber, God’s Dice at Soho Theatre; Othello at Sheffield Crucible; and Playhouse Creatures at Chichester Festival Theatre.
Completing the company are: Francesca Faridany (Lady Sarah), Aaron Gill (Hari), Anyebe Godwin (Serang/Lascar), Miriam Grace Edwards (Charlotte/Georgina), Oliver Hembrough (Sir John Oakham/William), Avita Jay (Firoza), Tom Milligan (Freddie), Sarah Moyle (Mary/Susan Matthews), Chris Nayak (Jinnah/Singh), Lauren Patel (Ruby/Asha), Simon Rivers (Dadabhai Naoroji), Anish Roy (Gandhi/Lascar), Nicola Stephenson (Lascar Sally), Premi Tamang (Lascar/Ayah) and Joe Usher (Lascar).
The Empress first premiered in the Swan Theatre in 2013 and was directed by Emma Rice.
The play-text was recently added to the GCSE drama syllabus following a campaign spearheaded by the RSC’s Youth Advisory Board and one of four new plays by writers of colour to better reflect the diversity of playwriting in the UK. The text was introduced by AQA in 2022, the largest examination board in England. Tanika’s 2019 production of A Doll’s House was previously added to the national curriculum by Pearson in 2021 alongside works by Bola Agbaje, In-Sook Chappell and Roy Williams.
Tanika Gupta has written over 25 stage plays that have been produced in major theatres across the UK. Her critically acclaimed adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House set in colonial Calcutta launched Rachel O’Riordan’s first season as Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in 2019.
Tanika was awarded an MBE for Services to Drama and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Tanika is an Artistic Associate at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre and was recently announced as one of two new Writers in Residence at The Bush Theatre in 2023. For further details, visit www.tanikagupta.com
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, and Casting by Matthew Dewsbury CDG and Martin Poile.