A TALE of two women. One an older woman struggling with private grief and public power, the other at the start of adult life bewildered and bruised by the harsh world around her.
Perhaps a tale of two nations too in Tanika Gupta’s sprawling but engrossing drama which sweeps us through a decent chunk of Victorian empire history.
At three hours this is an expansive survey of Britain’s role in subjugating nations and their people, but thanks to fine performances throughout it zips along and carries enough wit and comedy amid the hand-wringing to keep things from becoming too preachy.
Raj Bajaj as the educated servant who constructs for himself a key role at the heart of the royal household treads a nice line in charismatic charm and could easily steal the show if it weren’t for the two central female roles.
Alexandra Gilbreath’s Victoria is a very three-dimensional woman slightly alienated despite being so closely surrounded by staff. It’s a very moving portrayal juggling the humanity of a woman emerging from grief with the supposed complicity in the atrocities carried out to expand her empire.
As the embodiment of Indian hope, industry and resilience Tanya Katyal plays an ayah discarded by her British employers and left to plot a course through poverty, uncertainty and abuse before beginning to find her feet. Even in the darkest moments there’s a positivity and buoyancy in the performance which never lets hope drift too far away.
Pooja Ghai’s production is wonderfully staged shifting seamlessly from passenger deck to palace breakfast room, seedy boarding house and politician’s parlour.
Rosa Maggiora’s design is eye-catching and clever throughout and there’s a fine and varied soundtrack from live musicians.
There are many themes within this lengthy tale. The inevitability of suffering at the hands of male deceit, the plight of those deemed a slave class, the establishment closing ranks on dissenting voices, the uncanny ability of London throughout history to produce cheery, rough diamonds despite the squalor.
As you’d expect, there are chances to draw parallels with how we live now. Political opportunities and workers’ rights may have improved and the power of monarchy outwardly lessened perhaps. But the appalling abuse of women goes on and, as this week’s monstrous news stories attest, the land which was the victim is more than capable of producing abusers of its own.
In truth there’s little, if anything, new. This era and its cast of characters has been well served, not least by the films of Judi Dench, but this consistently engaging production plays on familiar themes and episodes without really hitting any duff notes.
Visit rsc.org.uk for performance times and ticket details.