Tanya Katyal makes her RSC debut in the role of Rani Das in the RSC’s upcoming production of Tanika Gupta’s The Empress which will also visit The Lyric Hammersmith later this Autumn.
Spanning a period of 13 years over the ‘Golden Era’ of Empire (1887-1901), the play re-surfaces an often-overlooked era in British-Indian history, through the parallel stories of Queen Victoria’s relationship with Abdul Karim & the experiences of the Indian ayahs who came to Britain during the 19th century.
Tanya Katyal’s theatre credits include, When Mountains Meet at Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow. Television credits include Netflix’s Eternally Confused and Eager for Love.
You’re starring in The Empress, what can you tell us about this play?
The Empress is set in London, during the British rule in India. Two parallel stories run alongside each other: one is of Queen Victoria during the last 14 years of her reign and the other is the story of an Indian ayah (babysitter), Rani Das. We see these two women navigate their lives through different stages. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s also a story of finding love. It’s a story of immigrants and the idea of home and hope, of building and rebuilding a life, of overcoming fear, and of always keeping the hope alive.
What was it about Tanika Gupta’s script that made you really want to be a part of this production?
So, when I read the script, I could not put it down, I was up all night reading it. I think what stuck out is that it talked about colonisation in all its shades of grey. The British Raj was a complex and messy time, and I don’t think I had ever read about it from the perspective of individuals who were living in the country of the coloniser at the time.
It was a different perspective for me, personally. The timeline of the story also lets you see the foundations of how the Indian movement for independence came into being, which was so exciting! But really what carried the intrigue through is how well rounded every single character is. All while sprinkling bits of humour and fun for good measure as well! Tanika is an absolute genius, and she does this so beautifully. I’ve always been a huge fan of her work, so I had to be a part of this.
The Empress was added to the GSCE Edexcel syllabus and the GCSE AQA Drama syllabus following a campaign aided by RSC’s Youth Advisory Board, why do you think it’s crucial that plays like this are included in the curriculum?
It’s important that people of this country, especially South Asian people know their history and feel represented here. India and England are so intrinsically linked that it is only fair that the coming generations learn why. It’s also important for other communities in this country to be educated about the colonial past. What happened in India wasn’t too dissimilar to what happened in many other parts of the world as a result of colonisation. By learning about it we can collectively move forward with more empathy.
It’s set in the late 19th Century, what parallels have you seen between life then and life today?
I think that in 2023, even though the world is so small now, we are still sometimes thrown by other people’s differences. We may not be colonising people anymore, but the world is quick to divide itself on different topics. Especially through social media now, we’re quick to judge and ridicule and be so radical in our thinking that we refuse to see another perspective. I don’t think we’ve still learned entirely how to embrace each other’s differences and still coexist without conflict.
I believe that at the core, we are more similar than we think. Our humanity is what connects us. Though we often forget this, and power, greed and ego still take over.
Tell us a little about your character, and what you’re enjoying most about the role?
I’m learning a lot playing Rani. I have studied colonialism in India but there are details in this play that even I didn’t know about.
What is most interesting about playing her is that she’s like a thread pulling other people’s stories together to form a heart-wrenching narrative. So, through her journey, you meet a lot of brilliant characters: Gems like Gandhi, Dadabhai Naoroji, Firoza etc. And I feel like she’s shaped throughout the play by them. I’m really enjoying building her journey. I love her resilience and strength. Her spirit is inspiring.
What would you say to anyone thinking of booking to see The Empress?
Do it! There’s a bit of everything in the Empress. Bring your mates, bring your family! You won’t be disappointed.