Set in colonial India, playwright Tanika Gupta has re-adapted her own version of Dickens’ work, for the stage and this opens tonight at the Royal Exchange, Manchester…
By Suman Bhuchar
ESH ALLADI is the star of this new adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’ and he has worked closely with Pooja Ghai.
She has also directed Tanika Gupta’s original, ‘The Empress’ (on at The RSC currently) and recently Ghai herself spoke to us about this and her work in more general terms with Gupta. (See more here).
Gupta first adapted Dicken’s classic 19th century novel, ‘Great Expectations’ in 2011. It was staged at Watford Theatre where it enjoyed success.
We last saw Alladi in the award-winning ‘The P-Word’, where with writer-performer Waleed Akhtar, the two-hander blew audiences away and was virtually hailed as a modern classic and won an Olivier.
Alladi now becomes the orphan, Pipli (a young Bengali ‘Pip’ – from the central character of Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’) who yearns to leave his home in Rajshahi (now in contemporary Bangladesh) and move to the bustling city of Calcutta (Kolkata) and make his fortune.
Set now before the Partition of Bengal, in this version, all the names have been changed to fit the setting, whereas in the earlier adaptation, Gupta kept the original character names.
Joe Gargery of Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ now becomes ‘Jagu’, in this version, and it really helps to make all the names authentic with the surroundings because it really embeds us in that world and time, Alladi explained.
He also told us that there is more politics in this version.
“I also believe the political focus has really been heightened which I think is so brilliant and it’s going to work really, really well despite the sort of conflict in terms of what colonialism does and in terms of how Pip wants to better himself and seeing it through the eyes of a British lens – what it actually means and how you might lose yourself.”
Alladi means that in the hope of Pip wanting to improve himself and become ‘better’ – he becomes more anglicised, and he both loses and gains in this process.
Alladi has appeared in Gupta’s previous works, including ‘Lions and Tigers’ (a pre-independence drama based on her great uncle who plotted against British rule and was hanged), ‘Hobson’s Choice’- another English classic, relocated to a modern day South Asian community and ‘The Overseas Student’ an original work about Mahatma Gandhi’s early life in London as an aspiring lawyer. Alladi said that Gupta is a real history buff.
“What Tanika does brilliantly and what she has done also with the adaptation of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘Hobson’s Choice’ is retain the heart of the story and the drama, but with an absolutely critical historical lens,” Alladi pointed out.
So as far as ‘Great Expectations’ is concerned, relocating it to a period of the early 20th century (1903-05) is not that dissimilar to Dickens’ own time (1812-1870).
“It just brings out a set of politics which is why I love working with Tanika – she does it very gracefully and simply.
“She picks all the good parts of Dickens and makes it her own.
“It has a spirituality and a historical base to it – which I think makes it rich in a very different way.”
Dickens is one of those writers “who just keeps on giving”, as theatrical parlance would have it and his work is constantly in circulation.
In fact, there was a recent BBC adaption of ‘Great Expectations’ which was considered too ‘woke’ as it had a multicultural cast and also featured a real underbelly of British society. So what is his appeal?
“I think the reason why we go back to him, is there’s a universality to his work but also there’s politics. He is talking about the disparity between the rich and the poor, he’s talking about human struggle through love, poverty, trying through adversity which is all the kinds of stories we absolutely adore. I think that’s why everyone is attracted to Dickens,” Alladi asserted.
“Also his prose is beautiful and my favourite is David Copperfield. I remember reading it at school. I loved the Armando Iannucci film version with Dev Patel (‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ – brilliant, irreverent and really great.
“Ultimately Dickens writes a very good story with an incredibly compelling narrative and fleshes that out with characters that are just so everything from, very, very funny, and strange and with complexity, like Miss Havisham, Estella and Pip himself.”
“These characters have got so much complexity and humanity to them that you are always sort of leaning forward,” he said.
You always want to go deeper into them and find out what’s going to happen, therefore it stands up to interpretation but also he’s also an incredibly political writer through things like the wonderful adaptations of ‘A Christmas Carol’ that are constantly staged, he enthuses.
And what about the language in the play, we ask.
“It’s a mix of using bits of the Dickens itself and also it’s contemporary English – it’s not particularly urban, it’s not set in a multicultural London, Tanika’s style uses the Dickens as a jumping off platform.”
Alladi has worked with Ghai before too – on ‘Lions and Tigers’ as well as ‘The House of In Between’ (Theatre Royal Stratford East 2016).
“She just trusts and challenges me.”
When not acting, Alladi works as a locum doctor in the A&E department at the North Manchester General Hospital. He comes from a family of doctors.
He told us: “My father was a doctor, both my grandparents were doctors, my sister went to medical school, so many of my aunt’s and uncles are doctors – it’s a family business – this seems like such a good fit and I love being a doctor. So that’s why I applied to medical school.”
He went to Downing College, Cambridge to study medicine but that is also the home of many successful artists, so it wasn’t too long before he started acting in plays. This led to him deciding to pursue acting full time and he enrolled at London Academy of Music and Drama (LAMDA).
Since his graduation, he has worked steadily in theatre in some high profile plays such as those mentioned and also at the National Theatre in ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ by Katherine Boo and ‘Dara’ by Shahid Nadeem and Tanya Ronder which were staged in 2015.
Alladi is also the chair of the Actors Benevolent Fund – an illustrious charity, over 144 years old and whose past presidents have included Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud and it supports actors and stage managers who have fallen on hard times.
The overall 12-strong cast features Catherine Russell as Miss Havisham, Cecilia Khan as Estella and Asif Khan as Jagu (ie, Joe Gargery) and runs from today until October 8.
Rehearsal pictures available at the time of publication – all pictures ©Royal Exhange & Abey Lam
‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens, re-adapated (since 2011 Gupta stage version) for the stage by Tanika Gupta and directed by Pooja Ghai, Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann’s Square, Manchester M2 7DH.
September 8-October 7
More info/booking: https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/event/great-expectations-2023/
The Personal History of David Copperfield – http://asianculturevulture.com/?s=The+Personal+History+of+David+
The House of In Between – http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/the-house-of-in-between-the-many-shades-of-love-and-survival/
Behind the Beautiful Forevers – http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/morality-survival-behind-beautiful-forevers/