David Adamson enjoys a welcome reworking of Dickens’ masterpiece
Totally subjective rating: 7.5/10 for a refreshing adaptation that whizzes by despite its running time, but sometimes at the cost of gravitas.
Who: Great Expectations, adapted by Tanika Gupta
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre
When: 8 September to 7 October
What Royal Exchange Theatre says: This adaptation of a classic by Tanika Gupta is just pure genius. You’ll get to see the familiar Dickens framework, but it comes with a twist.
What we say: I think the Royal Exchange may be overstating it just a tad to call this ‘pure genius’, a statement about as open to inspection as a locked safe.
The beauty of classics like Great Expectations is that everyone is so tired of traditional stagings there’s an openness towards interpretation. However some of the key motivations of the story - Pip’s wilful hollowing out and remaking into a ‘gentleman’ in the hopes of gaining Estella’s love; Miss Haversham’s scornful games to try and remould the pain of her past - fall between the cracks of this production while imperialist class systems seems to be made into the only theme of any significance.
Much of the twists and moderations made to the play undoubtedly make it sing in a new register, especially the effective use of accent in conveying the sorts of code-switching necessary not only for an upwardly mobile Victorian orphan, but a young Indian man in the confused confines of the Raj.
Esh Alladi's Pipli (Gupta's take on Pip) is all wide-eyed earnestness and a naive eagerness to please, although the well-worn emotional whack of his later embarrassment towards Joe (here Jagu) is far too softly handled. This felt less like an old friend sailing off into another life without you and more like a mild family tiff. I'd say this speaks to other emotional aspects of the production as well - that Dickens, for all the dusty Victorian stylings, gives any dramatist bullets in several chambers for them to use as they please. Here it doesn't feel as if they were discharged.
Meanwhile Miss Havisham is at her best when speaking through a thick cloud of laudanum (the stuff Coleridge went to Xanadu and back on), a dramatic detail that speaks well to the play's chosen backdrop - the British Empire's colonial cartel - and one of the novel's most affecting human aspects. Miss Havisham's heart was not born black but instead infected and left rotting in a moment in time. Mumbling through this sort of opioid ever-present suits the staging much better than parts where she's lifted dangerously close to comic relief.
The music by Bolton's Arun Ghosh is hugely evocative and lends a much-needed sense of an outside world and possibility to a small staging that, while cleverly constructed, needs all the expanse it can get.
Dickens can be many things to many people, which is much of the joy to be found in his works. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Great Expectations, where you can choose to strip away some of the fripperies and show the story in its raw, skeletal form. Here the production pared down the narrative to a spartan degree, but ultimately kept it humming with life thanks to a solid and characterful cast.
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