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)