American Theatre Magazine: A Pip in India: How ‘Great Expectations’ Translates to a New Setting

By Allison Considine

Tanika Gupta’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations is a great undertaking. The play—with two 90-minute acts, two cultures (British and Indian), and two writers—called for two companies and two directors for its mounting. Remy Bumppo Theatre Company and Silk Road Risingof Chicago rose to the challenge, teaming up to stage the mammoth production at Silk Road Rising May 11-July 2.

Nick Sandys, producing artistic director of Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, came across Gupta’s 2011 adaptation of the classic novel in the library. The lengthy 12-character play, which Gupta resets in India, seemed like the perfect opportunity for a coproduction with Silk Road Rising, which highlights the work of Middle Eastern and South Asian writers.

“Remy Bumppo was looking to expand our season, expand our audience, and be more inclusive—all the things that most theatres are doing,” says Sandys, who codirected the play with Lavina Jadhwani.

Gupta transports the classic tale of the orphan Pip and his social-climbing journey from 19th-century England to India in 1861. In her version, Pip travels from Calcutta to Bombay, and the novel’s beloved characters appear in Gupta’s “re-adaptation,” as she calls it, with some discrepancies: The convict Abel Magwitch is an African sailor in the play, and the character of Joe Gargery is a cobbler instead of a blacksmith.

“Tanika elegantly signals that this is not necessarily the Dickens that you are used to,” says Jadhwani about the changes.

But aside from the contextual changes, Gupta’s dialogue closely mirrors that of Dickens’s novel. “What is exciting about this adaptation is that not only is she very true to the original Dickens—80 percent of the dialogue is straight from the novel,” says Sandys. “Yet she’s added this amazing expansion of the story by starting it in 1861, which is the same year that the novel was published.”

The year 1861 also marks a pivotal point in India’s history: the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the onset of British rule in India. Changing the character of Magwitch to an African sailor expands the play’s focus from British-Indian relations to the theme of global colonization—and its long shadow.

“Hearing a black man in the role of Magwitch speak about the injustices of our legal system is heartbreakingly contemporary,” Jadhwani adds.

The cast of “Great Expectations.” (Photo by Johnny Knight)

Born in England, Sandys is no stranger to Dickens. His stories were a fixture in his childhood bedtime story rotation, and Sandys went on to be a Dickens scholar, receiving two masters degrees in literature and a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. And while he grew up with the classics, he enjoys staging plays that put a spin on literature. “I want to find something that has a new aspect and a new way of opening up these stories, so that not only do they seem familiar, but they seem strange again,” he says.

But Dickens is also a fixture in India: He’s a part of school curricula in India, and just last year a Bollywood adaptation of Great Expectations, called Fitoor, was released. “[Dickens] is very much part of the Indian psyche,” adds Sandys.

Not that he’s always welcome there. As Jadhwani confesses: “Truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of Dickens. I don’t typically have an ‘in’ to his stories. But in Tanika’s multicultural version of this tale, I do. And in her version, the politics are much clearer, more contemporary, more relevant to me.”

In Gupta’s version, Pip says: “I am a strange man, Indian by birth but aping the English… I exist in a kind of netherworld.” Says Jadhwani, “Watching a young man of color navigate a world in which he feels caught between two cultures totally resonates with me as a first-generation Indian-American.”

Netta Walker as Estella and Anand Bhatt as Pip in “Great Expectations.” (Photo by Johnny Knight)

Jadhwani sees the play, with its long but fast-moving scenes, as a kind of Hindi movie onstage, and she looked to Indian films that focused on the Indian uprising of 1857 for inspiration.

“One of the questions I asked early on during table work was, What does it mean to be a gentleman?” says Jadhwani, adding that Sandys’s British heritage has been helpful in the rehearsal room. “We have a really different understanding of what that means in 2017 versus what it meant when Dickens was writing, and certainly when this play was set. Having somebody who knows what that means and knows what certain mannerisms would be, it has been huge just to have that knowledge in the room.”

The directors also discussed interpretations of the dialogue. “When we hear Uncle Pumblechook, we don’t necessarily assume that ‘uncle’ means that those people are related by blood,” says Jadhwani. “A person with that status in the community, we might call ‘uncle’ as a sign of respect.”

The learning has gone both ways, Sandys points out. “Studying something like this adaptation, and the history of India in this period, really opens up a world that I knew only a tiny amount about. For me as a director, that is the best journey to go on. Directing a show is about learning. Taking people into the theatre to go on a journey with them is the most exciting part of what we do.”

In addition to the cultural  education, the production process was a learning curve for the codirectors. Sandys also works as a fight director, and Jadhwani’s background is in design, so the two brought all of their talents to the staging. During the three-week rehearsal period, they tag-teamed with Sandys blocking the actors while Jadhwani finalized projections and worked with the designers.“Knowing we could spin a couple of plates at once and maximize our time in that way has been really great,” says Jadhwani.

So what are the two companies’ expectations?

“We’re hoping that this inclusive play and this inclusive process—along with Silk Road Rising’s message and mission of polyculturalism—brings a much more varied audience together,” says Sandys. The companies are cross-marketing with the ultimate goal of bringing Remy Bumppo subscribers into the fold of Silk Road Rising’s programming, and vice versa.

Jadhwani says this production is “ocular proof” that large coproductions can be done successfully. She hopes that the “cross-pollination of artists and audiences” compels more companies to take greater risks.

The greater the expectations, the greater the reward.