Charles Dickens wrote only two of his 15 novels in the first person: David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Both are semiautobiographical and centrally concerned with class mobility. But in key ways they’re mirror images of each other. David Copperfield, published in 1850, charts the title character’s fulfilling progress from poverty to fortune, his talent and determination bringing him success and happiness. Great Expectations, published a decade later, focuses on young, impoverished Pip—equally talented and determined—whose efforts to better his station bring him mostly anguish, doubt, and a crushing loss of self. Not only that, in Dickens’s original version of the story, he doesn’t even get the girl.
Perhaps by the time Dickens began plotting Great Expectations, shortly after destroying his own marriage, he’d developed a less rosy view of socially privileged life than he’d had writing David Copperfield. Little in the later novel suggests that wealth and status brings happiness or pleasure. Miss Havisham, the rich recluse who takes Pip temporarily under her wing, spends her spite-filled days in a darkened manse picking at the wounds of a decades-old betrayal, instilling in her adopted daughter, Estella, the virtue of cold-heartedness. And throughout the novel Pip never lets the reader forget how much emotional and moral damage comes from trying to reach an upper echelon.
So in many ways British playwright Tanika Gupta’s transplanting of Dickens’s story to 1860s India couldn’t be more potent. Pip is now a young Bengali villager living under the Raj, and his ambition to become an English gentleman leads him away from both his social class and his cultural identity. He can achieve success only by siding with his colonizers, becoming a tool to enhance his nation’s subjugation. As Jaggers, an attorney hired to watch over Pip’s education, explains, the British are eager to educate Indians so they can persuasively translate the Crown’s dictates to the native population. In Dickens’s original, Pip sells his soul. Here, he makes a deal with the devil.
It all makes for a particularly thorny, high-stakes rendering of Dickens’s tale, and directors Lavina Jadhwani and Nick Sandys for the most part tell the tale convincingly in this coproduction from Silk Road Rising and Remy Bumppo. They’ve got a stalwart cast at their disposal, led by an artfully naive Anand Bhatt as Pip, a delightfully grotesque Linda Gillum as Miss Havisham, a drearily upright Roderick Peeples as Jaggers, and a charismatically frigid Netta Walker as Estella. Once the indiscriminately histrionic opening scenes are out of the way, the show is full of carefully etched performances and well-shaped dramatic arcs. Yeaji Kim’s minimalist set and beguiling projections allow the play’s multiple locales to appear and disappear efficiently. While narrative logic grows porous toward the end (somehow Pip becomes deathly ill and wracked with debt overnight), the story is compelling across its three-hour span.
But it might have been more compelling if Gupta had allowed some ambivalence into the show’s politics. While in the original novel Pip’s ambition to rise above his station is to some degree laudable, here it’s unequivocally condemned. From the stern reprimand of his sister’s wise husband, Joe, to the subtle admonishments of his sole close friend, Biddy, it’s always clear that Pip is betraying his family and his heritage by pursuing an English education. There’s little cause to root for him, to wonder if he’ll find a successful way to navigate an ethical minefield. Instead we’re left to merely witness his misguided folly and congratulate ourselves on knowing better.
Thus, rather than a morality tale, we get a tale with fair amount of easy moralizing. It doesn’t help that the Indian villagers are all portrayed as unimpeachable, salt-of-the-earth folks for whom we’re asked to feel nothing but admiration (it’s telling that in the novel Pip’s older sister, who acts as his surrogate mother, is borderline abusive, while here she’s overflowing with tough love). Gupta makes it clear that Pip’s only correct choice is to remain true to his cultural identity, but she ignores the fact that cultural identities can be mighty complicated constructions. v