“I fell in love with the character’s charm”: Raj Bajaj on The Empress at Swan Theatre
The Empress, by Tanika Gupta, is the new RSC production covering 13 years of the so-called “Golden Era” of Empire, focusing on the tension and history between Great Britain and India, under the rule of Queen Victoria. It features several real-life individuals and their stories, and has a diverse cast to showcase the cultural divide between the characters and its effects on their growing relationships. It stars Tanya Katyal as Rani Das, a nursemaid, and the main protagonist of the play. In an effort to cover more texts by people of colour, The Empress became part of Penguin’s pilot scheme called “Lit in Colour”, which aimed to increase texts and literature written by minorities and diverse ethnic groups in the classroom. The play has officially been added to AQA’s GCSE Drama syllabus.
One of the many real-life people depicted by the play is Abdul Karim, the former Indian Secretary of Queen Victoria who was more than just that. A friend and her teacher, their relationship has previously been the subject of analysis in the 2017 film Victoria & Abdul starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal. In the play, Abdul is played by British-Indian actor Raj Bajaj who grew up in Bristol. Having started acting in 2011, Bajaj has previously worked with The Empress’s director Pooja Ghai and has also been involved in other RSC projects, including Much Ado About Nothing. The Upcoming caught up with him to discuss his role as Abdul, performing in the newly-refurbished Swan Theatre and his favourite Shakespeare plays.
You’ll be playing Abdul Karim in RSC’s new production of The Empress by Tanika Gupta. Tell us a little bit about the character and the role he plays in the story.
Abdul is a very proud, charismatic, intelligent and confident young man, who arrives in England at the age of 24. Often called Machiavellian at times for his pursuit of status and wealth, his ultimate goal is to serve his queen to the best of his abilities. Through his journey, he meets other characters like Rani and brings both worlds together.
What is it about The Empress that drew you into auditioning?
I was fortunate to be offered the part without auditioning, having previously worked with Pooja. When I read the work, I fell in love with the character’s charm and his relationship with Queen Victoria. Also, being a real-life character and based on real-life events adds a responsibility to history, which I’m excited to tell – as it was once lost and destroyed.
Tanya Katyal is making her RSC debut with The Empress. How is she faring so far as the lead of the play?
Tanya is doing fantastic. She’s extremely hardworking and super talented, and her portrayal of Rani is nuanced, truthful and exquisite to watch!
You’ll also be performing at the newly refurbished Swan Theatre. How exciting is that for you?
Extremely excited to be back at the Swan. It’s one of my favourite spaces to perform in. The audience feel like a part of your thoughts and feelings. It’s such an intimate and beautiful space.
You’ve done a couple of Shakespeare plays before, including The Merchant of Venice and Romeo & Juliet. Why do you think that, despite the constant evolution of theatre and new modern plays introduced, time and time again, Shakespeare continuously attracts an audience?
I think Shakespeare’s works are timeless. The themes and issues explored in his plays are still relevant today, such as love, power, betrayal and the human condition. His characters are complex and multidimensional, making them relatable to audiences of any era.
What’s been your favourite from any of these Shakespearean roles you’ve played?
I enjoyed playing Paris in Romeo & Juliet. However, I played Othello at drama school and absolutely loved it!
Any other plays by Shakespeare you’ve yet to do that you’d like to have a go at some point?
I would like to perform them all at some point. But if I had to choose, I would love to play Malvolio in Twelfth Night.
You’ve done a couple of films and TV shows. Is that something you want to keep pursuing, or are you happy to stick with theatre for now?
I really enjoy working on both platforms and will continue to do so. However, the stage is where my heart lies.
From your on-screen work, which has been your favourite to work on or the one you’ve had the most fun doing?
I really enjoyed my experience on Netflix’s A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding. It was a 5-week shoot from beginning to end and felt like one big theatre family. The character was flamboyant and extremely fun to play, I had an absolute hoot improvising around the scenes.
Image: Ellie Kurttz
The Empress is at The Swan Theatre from 7th July until 18th November 2023 and at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre from 4th to 28th October 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.