Tanika Gupta (playwright) and Pooja Ghai (Artistic Director of Tamasha) – the creative duo behind Royal Exchange Theatre and Tamasha’s co-production of Great Expectations – speak to James Prestridge ahead of the shows opening in September.
Tanika, what is your connection to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations?
TG: I always loved the novel from an early age. The rags to riches and back to rags story is very dramatic. Like everyone else, I marvel at Dickens’ ability to tell such great stories, his humour, his characters and indeed his social conscience. Great Expectations was one of my late father’s favourite novels and he once acted in a BBC world drama production of it in Bengali. He played Magwitch and always talked about how Magwitch was a rogue with a conscience, forced into the penal system, brutalised and demonised and how easily he could be a contemporary character.
Your adaptation is set against a colonial backdrop of 1903 Bengal, India. What inspired your adaptation?
TG: Inspiration came from the original book! I have always been fascinated by Indian/British history, particularly from the time that Dickens was writing in the nineteenth century. I wanted to set the adaptation in India at the time of the first partition of Bengal in 1905 which galvanised Bengali and Indians to fight for independence. Miss Havisham in my adaptation represents colonial Britain – the dying embers of it – her inability to ‘let go’ of the memory of the lover who jilted her so cruelly, her arrogance, her manipulation of Estella and Pipli and her vulnerability are all an allegory for British rule. But we still feel empathy for her and she does change!
What themes did you want to explore through this adaptation?
TG: Race, class, caste, colourism, India nationalism, colonialism, ideas of white supremacy.
Pooja Ghai is the artistic director. What has your collaboration been like?
TG: Pooja is the artistic director of Tamasha and the director of this production. We have collaborated on a number of productions -most recently at the RSC on my play ‘The Empress ‘-and we work well together! As a director from the global majority, she implicitly understands my point of view and the creative vision is further supported by the designer Rosa Maggiora who works her magic with the set and costume designs.
What type of conversations do you hope the play sparks?
TG: I hope it will appeal to lovers of Dickens and the original book. The story is still the same, the characters are all thesame and it will be a very theatrical experience. Britain and India have had a long relationship both combative, exploitative and mutually affectionate. The diverse caste of this production should leave people thinking about our history together, our friendships and the universality of the story of Dickens’ Great Expectations.
Pooja, I understand you previously acted in a production of Great Expectations. What is your connection to this story?
PG: It’s come full circle in a way….I played Mrs Gargary in Tanika Gupta’s adaptation in 2011 and it was both amazing and eye opening to be in a production that brought a colonial lens on the story and didn’t shy away from the darker side of this history. Tanika transported Dickens’ classic to Calcutta and opened up a world of parallels between British and Indian cultures and a much-needed insight into our complex relationship. To be given the opportunity to direct this new adaptation in 2023, set during the 1905 partition of Bengal feels incredibly pertinent. The motive behind Lord Curzon’s 1905 partition of Bengal was divide and rule. Bengal was partitioned on religious lines. Muslim and Hindu. East and West Bengal. This led to a wave in nationalism and the rise of the Swadeshi movement. What was happening then has parallels to what is going on now in so many countries around the world.
What did you find compelling about playwright Tanika Gupta’s reimagining of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations?
PG: Tanika shines a light on Britain and India’s history and their complex relationship with each other. She skilfully embraces the more challenging perspectives – the impact of imperial power over generations for both cultures. Dickens’ story lends itself this exploration and Tanika’s adaptation invites us into a period of history many know little or nothing about; it explores themes of nationalism, colourism, colonialism, race, power and class. More stories like these need to be on our national stages.
As artistic director, what did you hope to bring to this adaption?
PG: I am artistic director of Tamasha, and director of this production. We are proud to be co-producing this new adaptation with the Royal Exchange Theatre and I am so thankful that Roy Alexander Weise and Bryony Shanahan saw the importance of producing this play at this time. I hope the play generates conversation, invites people to broaden their lens on our colonial histories and the complex relationship between Britain and India. The story celebrates the resilience of individuals that are subjugated through colonial structures and highlights the value of allyship and friendship, Love and family. It doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the colonial coin – but asks us to delve deeper into this side of history to better understand why we are where we are today.
The story set against a colonial backdrop of 1903 Bengal, India. How have you found the challenge of bring this period and setting alive in the play?
PG: Directing any play in the round throws up a different set of challenges, you have to think slightly more out of the box and create a more abstract world that encapsulates all the locations the play takes us to. From a little village on the riverbanks of the River Padma, the winding corridors of Havisham’s colonial mansion and the bustling streets of the City of Calcutta, the challenge was to create an integrated space that transports us to these locations/worlds/settings, and I think we have cracked it!
Rosa Maggiora, who Tanika and I have worked with before, most recently on The Empress at the RSC, is doing the set and costume design for Great Expectations. It is a set encapsulating the elemental forces in Tanika’s adaptation: the water, the land, the grandeur, the craft, the heat and red dust of India. We cannot wait to share it with an audience.
What can audiences expect from the show?
PG: A fresh new perspective on a well-known story. It is witty and brave, bringing to life well-loved characters in a whole new light. The brilliant cast of actors is diverse – celebrating the diversity of the UK, our history, allyship, friendship and love.
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
PG: I hope the play makes people think about the power our collective voice has, and how Britain and India share a long and complex history. There’s so much more that connects us, than divides us, and this a story that celebrates both resilience, friendship and love when so much of the world feels like it is against you.
Great Expectations runs from 8 September – 7 October
For further information – https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/event/great-expectations-2023/