The Captive Queen Back

The Captive Queen is based on John Dryden’s Aureng-Zebe, a Restoration play first performed by the King’s Company in 1675. Though popular throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the play has rarely seen a modern stage. Co-produced by Shakespeare’s Globe and Northern Broadsides, The Captive Queen is a valedictory production directed by Barrie Rutter, Northern Broadsides’ founding artistic director.

Dryden’s play has two main sources of dramatic tension, one political and one romantic. The first is loosely based on the contemporary events at the court of Shan Jahan, Emperor of Mughal India, and the succession conflict between his sons; the play opens with Arimant (Silas Carson), Governor of Agra and loyal subject of the old Emperor (Barrie Rutter), comparing the strengths of the competing armies of the Emperor’s sons massing outside the city walls. The two main contenders for the crown are the youngest brothers, Morat (Dharmesh Patel), and Aureng-Zebe (Naeem Hayat) whose sense of fair leadership and loyalty to his father has been spurned by the Emperor because they are both in love with the same woman. Here then is the second plot: prisoner of war Indamora, the captive queen of the title and Aureng-zebe’s beloved, is pursued in turn by his father the Emperor, Arimant, and eventually by Morat as well. The political elements, intended to resonate with audiences concerned with the strength and legitimacy of Charles II’s own claim to the throne, have been downplayed in this production, so what remains is a tragi-comic rumination on the relationships between men and women.

Eighteenth-century commentators particularly admired Dryden’s poetry, and the play is written largely in rhymed verse. The programme quotes a number of admirers: Samuel Johnson wrote that Dryden’s ‘compositions are the effects of a vigorous genius operating on large materials’, while Walter Scott was full of praise for ‘the magnificent verses of Dryden’. Tastes change, however, and to my ear, though undoubtedly clever, the verse was not always delivered confidently, and the rhyming couplets tended to sound mechanical. The production in general seemed curiously static, often overly quiet and lacking in feeling, with the actors somewhat restricted in motion because of the use of space on stage. Dryden himself was aware of the drawbacks of this style of writing, admitting in the prologue that the author ‘to confess a truth, though out of time / Grows weary of his long-loved mistress, Rhyme’. He went on to explain ‘Passion’s too fierce to be in fetters bound’, and Aureng-Zebe was his last drama written in this form.

The most confident and compelling performance was that of the captive queen herself, with Neerja Naik’s melodious voice and gentle passion creating an emotional centre for a play that at times seemed to verge too far towards caricature. The already jewel-box quality of the Sam Wanamaker playhouse was enhanced by the bold gem-tones of the costumes and wall hangings, but other design choices were not as sympathetic. The story has been transposed from the seventeenth-century royal court to an early twentieth-century cloth factory. While the situation is largely incidental to the narrative and a modern setting can make a compelling statement about the classics, here the updates seemed inconsistently applied, rarely brought to the fore, except for the occasionally jarring moment when the main competitors for the throne go at each other with spanners and fabric shears. The exoticism of the east, surely a draw for Restoration audiences, is evoked here mainly through music, with traditional instruments and song alternately plaintive and seductive. The musical elements were beautifully rendered and well-received, with the musicians getting the loudest applause at the end of the performance, and not just because they evoked warmer climes much longed-for by an audience bound indoors on the extremely cold and snowy London evening.

As cited in the programme, Johnson wrote of Dryden’s play: ‘the personages are imperial; but the dialogue is often domestick, and therefore susceptible of sentiments accommodated to familiar incidents’. Despite its regal trappings, the play is essentially a meditation on the ability of love to reduce otherwise controlled individuals to a state of insensibility. It is not a particularly joyous presentation of romance, and married love in particular is lamented as rather tired and lacking in spark. Dryden casts a particularly knowing eye on the foibles of men in love. The Emperor, old but lustful, disinherits the deserving Aureng-Zebe in a misplaced attempt to claim Indamora’s affections by force. Arimant, loyal and ambitious in love, is more measured, but he is thwarted in his affections by his lower station – in our twenty-first century parlance he is unquestionably put in the ‘friend-zone’. Morat is young and greedy, brutal and impulsive, but eventually redeemed by Indamora’s generous attentions. Even Aureng-Zebe himself, portrayed as a worthy political leader, reveals himself to be just but jealous, nearly brought down by doubting his lover’s affections. The men, at least, are ultimately allowed to recant the errors of their ways, with reason triumphing over sentiment in the end. The women, however, are not accorded as much agency. Though Indamora is the titular figure, the title of ‘captive queen’ could easily describe any of the three royal women in the play, each condemned to rise and fall alongside the men with whom they have been aligned. Nourmahal, the Empress played by Angela Griffin, first arrives on stage haughty and indignant at the wandering eye of her husband, but her appeal has little effect, and she is reduced to pursuing security through the achievements of her son and an infatuation with Aureng-Zebe, in which she literally throws herself at his feet. Melesinda (Sarah Ridgeway), the sad, loving wife of Morat is cruelly cast aside despite her loyalty. Ultimately, both women only find a release from captivity in their deaths.

On one level it is easy to see the appeal of the work for a twenty-first century company. As a play from the first era to feature female actors on the London stage, there are a number of significant parts for women, and the Indian setting provides opportunities for a more diverse cast than some might traditionally associate with the canon of early modern drama. Nevertheless, the play’s portrayal of hysterical women and men unable to help themselves does not always feel like the most dynamic way to explore the changing relationship of gender and power, particularly in a time of productions like Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Julius Caesar and Deborah Warner’s King Lear starring Glenda Jackson. It is, I think, a worthy project to revive early modern plays beyond the more familiar works of Shakespeare and the Restoration comedies, but they necessitate a more rigorous examination beyond merely putting them on for historical interest.

The Captive Queen was performed at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, from 2nd February to 4th March 2018.