A daring new take on a Dickens classic

Relocating Great Expectations to Calcutta is a bold move. Arifa Akbar discovers how a playwright rose to the challenge

Ever since its first serialised publication in 1860, Charles Dickens's Great Expectations has re-emerged on our cultural landscape over 200 times and in varying permutations, some more eccentric than others.

It has seen life as a stage musical, a TV serial and was even given a Hollywood makeover in Alfonso Cuaron's movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow, although David Lean's 1946 black-and-white film arguably remains its most memorable adaptation. All the while, the story has remained a quintessentially English one, located in Dickens's own Victorian London with its stiff, inhospitable social hierarchies and its murky backstreets and bywaters upon which the orphaned Pip and criminal Magwitch roam. So the idea to take the Dickensian tale and recast it in Imperial Calcutta appears daring at best and rather impudent at worst.

Tanika Gupta, 47, the playwright whose brainchild it was to transform the story in this way, feels strongly that the story of Pip's social ascendancy in 19th-century London is ripe for transference to Calcutta of 1861, the then-heartland of the Raj with its immovable caste hierarchies and over-arching British influence. "I first read the book as a teenager and related to it. It felt very Indian to me. The class hierarchy of poor people and rich people are not dissimilar to those in Indian society." My story is set before the Indian mutiny and before the independence struggle," she says. In Gupta's play, which is directed by Nikolai Foster, there are some original features, other inventive tweaks: the orphan figure of Pip (played by Tariq Jordan) is plucked out of penury from an unnamed village in Bengal to be given an education. When he receives his inheritance, he goes to Calcutta (instead of London) because, as Gupta says, the city was the centre of imperial India. Pip is, she explains, a cobbler's son because "cobblers are not untouchables in the Indian caste system, although they are still pretty low down".

Gupta learned her trade by writing both radio plays for BBC Radio 4 and for TV series and soaps including Grange Hill and EastEnders. Her work has been shown at the National Theatre and the Royal Court and she is currently writing a play for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Her father's own ambition as an immigrant who, rather like Pip, emerged in London to work hard and make good, is the story that most appears to move her most. In some ways, Great Expectations can be seen, obliquely, as his story. She says a small incident some years ago led her to connect her father's aspirational drive as an immigrant with Dickens's story of Pip's social rise. "My brother and I were driving along and a [Indian] man in a Rolls-Royce that looked like my Dad stopped next to us and I thought: 'That's exactly what my Dad wanted'. He never got the biggest, flashiest car because he wasn't a Flash Harry, but he had that aspirational quality of the immigrant at the time; the idea that he came here to do well and the attitude that 'we don't want straight As from our children. We want star As'."

She bemoans other Asian families who do not push their children into the arts. There is still the "doctor, lawyer, accountant" triumvirate of professions that dominate Asian aspirations.

"Even now, my relatives still ask me what I do for a living. They say: 'Haven't you got a job yet?' My parents were very different. My father was upset when I got my first job as a community worker in Islington. I grew up writing and he reminded me of my original ambition." Yet neither is it an easy environment for Asians to enter, even if they receive the right kind of family encouragement. "It is shocking how few playwrights are non-white. Nick Hytner said theatre was full of 'dead white men', but I would say it's full of 'live white men'. This won't change unless there is a commitment to encouraging more Asian and non-white directors. It will always be a case of 'he or she is good but not as good as Trevor Nunn'."

'Great Expectations', Palace Theatre, Watford (01923 225671) to 12 March; then touring (www.ett.org.uk)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory