Rich music and a compelling performance by Angela Griffin make Barrie Rutter’s production of The Captive Queen a worthy viewing at Shakespeare’s Globe.
Amidst the dimly-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Barrie Rutter’s highly stylized production of John Dryden’s Aureng-zebe (1675), now titled The Captive Queen, offers a solid adaptation of a restoration play, which is certainly no small feat. As Rutter’s swansong as the director of the Northern Broadsides, which he established in 1992 in Yorkshire, The Captive Queen certainly offers an entertaining two hours at the theatre, even if, regrettably, the full power of the drama is not fully realized.
Restoration drama is rarely performed on stage, and that Rutter has chosen Dryden as his final performance with the Northern Broadsides indicates the dedication necessary to such complicated material. Issues of pace, tonal uncertainties, difficult sexual politics and a general lack of training (for both actors and directors) means drama from this turbulent and rich period can be difficult to produce. Rutter has transposed Dryden’s original setting of India during the 1660s to a mill in northern England, no doubt part of his goal to present (in Rutter’s own words), ‘northern voices, doing classical work in non-velvet spaces’. Initially this offers a variety of stylistic possibilities: characters wearing overalls clock in, bright fabrics adorn the walls and swords have been exchanged for wrenches and spanners. Jessica Worrall’s set design uses large coloured cloths to drape the white walls as a way of noting rebelling sons, which fall when they have been defeated and rehung when victory has been won. Draping themselves in these rich materials, the characters assume their historical positions. The Empress (Angela Griffin) was the tea lady and the Emperor (Barrie Rutter) was the floor sweeper. As a stylistic choice, this works well, and localized details, such as poison in the coffee flask, add to this transposing of setting. But the conceit feels achieved only at the surface level, with little development in the established connection of the separate lives of the mill workers and those of their historical counterparts.
Aided by Dryden’s heroic couplets, the play moves at a breathtaking pace through a series of scenes. Facilitated by the intimacy of the Wanamaker stage, there are several commendable performances in this production, though little use was made of the moving candlelight to affect the setting. The plot revolves around the four separate lovers of the titular captive queen, Indamora, performed by Nerja Naik, who is sensual, wry and commanding, and worthy of these suitors. Also in love with Indamora and fighting for succession, Naeem Hayat and Dharmesh Patel respectively as Aureng-zebe and Morat confidently jostle with their lines. Stealing every scene she is in, Griffin’s Nourmahal (the Empress) offers a fierce northern woman spurred on indignation, though she brilliantly turns from scorned wife to comic seductress at the beginning of the second half, and by the end of the play becomes a tragic queen. Rutter’s portrayal of the Emperor matches her bravado with his own pitiable, lecherous and changeable leadership. As his final performance, drawn by Dryden’s meter, Rutter offers a charged and well-executed performance. Sarah Ridgeway’s Meleinda puts forward a betrayed wife (and a strong northern accent), whilst Silas Carson offers a vibrant energy as Arimant, who is both a dutiful servant to the emperor and in love with Indamora. The music for this production is superb. Niraj Chag’s compositions are beautifully realized by Keval Joshi (percussion) and Laurence Corns (guitar), and Nawazish Ali Khan’s ululations, especially at the end of the production, was a poignant and moving performance. In a production that emphasized the comic elements, this musical score offered a tragic and emotive counterpart. For this success, though, it would be good if these musicians did not look bored between songs.
The Captive Queen, or Aureng-zebe, represents many of the problems of the restoration stage listed above. At times the pace and tone of the piece move too quickly, with suitors declaring their love to Indamora with little explanation of time together or shared experience, and the Emperor’s fickle and changeable approach to his succession can feel frustrating. For all the possible suggestions that the frame of the northern-mill setting offers, it is not used to its fullest potential. The adaptation does, however, provide Rutter with a symbolic exit scene of clocking off, a final performance with the Northern Broadsides perhaps that should be remembered not for its execution but its vision and daring to tackle a difficult but rewarding period of literature. Truly, we need more thinkers like Rutter to bring the restoration and other unfamiliar plays back to the contemporary stage.
The Captive Queen will play at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, until 4th March. My thanks to The Globe for providing production pictures.