Great Expectations launches with Pooja Ghai, Esh Alladi, and Tanika Gupta MBE FRSL
The Royal Exchange Theatre’s Autumn/Winter season is kicking off with a South Asian reimagining of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, adapted by Tanika Gupta MBE FRSL. A co-production with Tamasha Theatre Company, it is directed by the company’s Artistic Director, Pooja Ghai.
The Royal Exchange Theatre held a lovely little launch event for the play, hosted by Samina Ali. The event was community-focused, rather than press, with almost the entire audience made up of South Asians. I had met Samina at the launch event for Life of Pi at The Lowry and was invited as a South Asian theatre reviewer. I took along Urussa Malik, a theatre writer (and former theatre reviewer at The Mancunion!).
The panel event was essentially an in conversation with Tanika (via Zoom, thanks to the railstrikes), Pooja, and lead actor Esh Alladi (“Pipli”, the new Pip). The trio previously worked together on Hobson’s Choice at this very theatre but, sadly, Pooja had to pull out before they got to the theatre because of illness.
The event began with a welcome from Samina and a brief hello from Paula Rabbitt, the Head of Marketing and Communications at the Royal Exchange Theatre.
The central trio were all given introductions. We learned that Esh is not only an actor but also a doctor!
“That’s one way to make [Asian] parents proud,” joked Pooja.
Before the panel event began, we were treated to a guest appearance and musical performance by Arun Ghosh, the show’s composer and music director. He answered a series of questions from the audience and admitted that the Bengali-inspired music in the play is not strictly authentic.
“I don’t know what music they were making in Bangladesh in 1903; it might not have sounded like it was out of the Hacienda,” he joked.
He told the audience, which appeared to be mostly Indian and Pakistani, that Bengali music is similar because of the movement of people; there are also influences from China, Nepal and Bhutan.
Arun then played a piece from the play on the clarinet. It was truly divine.
Tanika and Pooja were not afraid to voice their frustrations with their industry. Tanika told us that the curse of being a writer is that theatres seldom commission new plays; they want adaptations. Urussa, a theatremaker, concurred. Tanika reminded us that this is her second adaptation; she hopes that next time they will commission original writing (third time lucky). She told us wisely that the way to get around this restriction is to rewrite classic texts.
She has always loved Great Expectations and thinks that is remains relevant, like much of Dickens’ work, because of its handling of class.
When an audience member asked Tanika why she chose to set her adaptation in India, she said, “Oh, it’s very easy; I’m from an Indian background so I set everything in India.”
As for the specifics: she chose to set the story in 1903 Bengal because it was the beginning of the Indian nationalist movement and the beginning of the partition of Bengal. The play includes English characters – “good, bad and the ugly” – to show that India and the UK have a relationship that goes back hundreds of years.
Similarly, Pooja is very interested in how intertwined British and Indian history are because the countries have been intertwined, “for better or for worse,” for hundreds of years.
She told us that the partition of Bengal was an early example of “divide and rule,” and it was followed by the larger, better-known partition in 1947. Tanika, similarly, called the 1903 partition a “trial run”.
She added that Dickens was writing at a time when Empire was happening so his writing had a direct response to what Empire was doing sociopolitically.
“I don’t know why I’m an artist if I’m not there to explore those conversations [about the dark sides of colonialism],” Pooja said passionately. She lamented that we do not learn about Empire in schools and criticised the notion that it is too dark. “If we’re talking about Nazi Germany, we can learn about Empire.”
A woman in the audience, Stephanie Eckhardt, told the panel that she is a teacher (she is the Head of Drama at Hulme Grammar School). “We’ve got some texts for you,” said Pooja, half-jokingly.
Steph, who converted to Islam upon marrying a Pakistani man, said that she teaches Tanika’s plays and tells her students about this famous actor that is also a doctor: “They can do both!”
Tanika reassured anybody worried about her altering a classic that it is the same story, “just lifted and put into a different context”. Similarly, Esh called this adaptation “so Dickens but so Tanika”, with the already fantastic characters taking on another depth and layer.
The play includes both Hindu and Muslim characters because, as Tanika reminded us, before colonialism, Hindus and Muslims lived together in harmony.
Tanika admits to struggling with her British-Indian identity: “I’m South Asian but I wasn’t born in India; neither were my parents. We were born in Africa.”
Esh commented on the British-Asian leaders currently in power, name-checking Rishi (UK) and Vardakar (Ireland), but let’s not forget Scotland’s Yousaf (and let’s forget Patel and Braverman).
“Pipli goes through a similar journey of discover: what you lose along the way in another culture and what you gain,” he told us. “With that comes pride but also shame and guilt.”
Tanika admitted that everything she writes is based on people she knows and warned us to watch out if we know her.
“I also make things up. That’s my job,” she told us, before adding, “As Dickens did.” She then told us that Miss Havesham was based on a real person.
Pooja told us that Tanika first adapted this play in 2011, and she was an actor in it at the time. It’s the play that propelled her into directing. Full circle!
Desi-fying Dickens is bold, of course, but we must take risks. As Esh said, “Think about all the plays you see about White people that are bad… We [South Asians] need to be able to fail as much as we succeed.”
After the panel event, there was some networking and lovely food supplied by Lily’s Vegetarian Restaurant.
Great Expectations runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre from September 8 to October 7.