Great Expectations exceeded our expectations. Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s thirteenth novel excited and inspired the audience of the Royal Exchange Theatre.
Gupta tells the original story of a young orphan boy Pip, who while living with his sister and her husband, is called on by Miss Havisham to play with the beautiful but callous Miss Estella. Pipli’s wealth and education are furthered by a secret benefactor, setting up an exploration of race, class, familial relationships, romantic love, emotional bruising, and even physical bruising.
Pipli is played by Esh Alladi who won the UK Theatre Award for Best Supporting Performance 2019 for Hobson’s Choice, also at the Royal Exchange Theatre. Surprisingly, this play shared many comedic moments, including the physical brawl in question between Pipli and Herbert Pocket. Herbert is played by Giles Cooper (credited in BBC’s Lady in the Van) whose appearance on stage tended to evoke laughter at the expense of poor Herbert.
Great Expectations is the longest play I have ever seen, including some Shakespeare performances which are infamously long, but I found these pockets of comedy relieving. Especially between the intimate and poignant scenes with Miss Havisham. That is certainly not to say that I was in any way disappointed when Catherine Russell took the stage. Russell, best known as Serena Campbell in BBC’s Holby City, and her emotionally intense, sometimes heart-rending, speeches released a profound sense of awe over the audience I have never witnessed before. In particular, Russell’s display of breathless agony when Mrs Havisham learns her betrothed love has never loved her touched me. I felt equally suffocated by personal recollections of times I have felt such anguish, Russell’s performance perfectly depicted indescribable emotions before me, it was truly moving.
While the original Bildungsroman is set in Kent, Gupta’s takes us to 1903 Bengal. Gupta cleverly uses this classic narrative to model the longstanding relationship between India and England. The partition of Bengal and the birth of the Indian nationalist movement provide a contextual depth to this rendition which seamlessly works with Dickens’s characters and narrative; having been influenced by British imperialism himself. I feel it necessary to commend here how the production played with accents. Conversations between Pipli and his family are imagined by the audience to be spoken in their native South Asian language, however, their accents are colloquially British. Moreover, when Pipli attempts to converse in English, with Miss Havisham for example, his accent becomes South Asian sounding. This clever detail encourages a predominantly British audience to consider the boundaries of language while developing our relationship with the protagonist and the playful, familiar dynamics of his Bengali home.
Blood, fire, gunshots, and water were only some of the remarkable effects the staging crew offered. Avoiding spoilers as much as possible, I was absorbed by a death resulting from one of the gunshots, so much so that I cried. This was a reaction formed by the combination of quality acting but also the true-to-life staging effects.
The Royal Exchange Theatre’s unusually circular stage never fails to leave those who haven’t visited it before oohing and aahing. The intimacy of the stage worked particularly well for this play. Transitions between Pipli’s home, the river and Miss Havisham’s mansion were knitted together expertly by using the rim of the stage as a walking path between scenes. We continued to perceive the interaction and expression of characters within these intervals instead of time simply passing between each set-up; as it does in some productions.
For those of you who may avoid plays based on classics that you are not familiar with, although I am an English Literature student, I have never actually read Great Expectations. This year I will complete a Charles Dickens module and accordingly snatched at the opportunity to view this rendition. The performance was, without doubt, the second-best production I have ever seen. It’s worth noting that I suggest it is second best to Prima Facie, Suzie Miller’s award-winning one-woman play.