Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of Great Expectations is daringly bold, transposing the action from Dickens’ usual festering slums to Bengal at the turn of the century undergoing partition courtesy of Lord Curzon and the British Empire.
Along the way, questions about class, race, identity and colonial power are woven into Dickens’ morality tale of unrequited love and the hand of fate. A co-production between the Royal Exchange and theatre group Tamasha, the set evokes the lush vegetation and heat and dust of India. A swirl of incense hangs over the set, a symbol perhaps of the fog which enveloped the country for so long under colonial rule.
The novel’s outlandish characters and plot twists provide rolling entertainment for the audience and are a treat for actors: if Catherine Russell as Miss Havisham was any more ghostly she would be see through. Esh Alladi as Pipli is a continuous stage presence and has a lot of ground to cover, from his carefree youth at home with cobbler Jagu Ganguly (a finely-judged performance by Asif Khan) to his final meeting as a Westernised Indian businessman with the disastrous Estella (Cecilia Appiah). Alladi is a dexterous actor capable of rendering Pipli’s journey from wide-eyed child to Anglo-Indian sahib with all the prejudices that entails with deft understanding.
The production is best seen as a palimpsest in which Gupta adds an extra layer to the original. The plight of the Indian sub-class, disputed land ownership, demonstrations against partition, and the racist attitude of the English ruling class are all on display. At Pipil’s first meeting with Miss Havisham, she promises to give him a Western education to ‘knock the Indian out of you’. Pip has a similar Pygmalion-like transformation in Dickens’ original and it is not hard to see how adoption of a dual identity leads to a dilution of self.
The problem with the production lies in its adaptation of a long and episodic novel which has no need to adhere to the rules of drama. We can forgive novelists who use exposition to carry along a plot, but the theatre is less forgiving and there are parts of the production where it is clunkily deployed. Worse still, some segments of the play lag and others are taken up with recounting of events rather than present-day action, neither of which aid dramatic traction.
The politics of the play can also at times appear disjointed from the plot so that speeches against colonial rule feel bolted on.
Nonetheless, this is a vibrant and enlightening production with an ensemble cast who act their socks off with an undeniable passion. Standout performances include Andrew French as Malik (Magwitch), Stephen Fewell as Jaggers and Humera Syed as Bilquis.
Great Expectations is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 8 September to 7 October 2023.