British playwright Tanika Gupta has long been captivated by Charles Dickens’ Victorian-era novels, in particular “Great Expectations,” which she first read as a youngster.

‘Great Expectations’
When: Through July 2
Where: Remy Bumppo and Silk Road Rising at Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington
Tickets: $35
Info: greatexpectationsplay.org

“The characters leapt off the page for me — Pip, Magwitch, Miss Havisham, Estella, Herbert Pocket and Joe Gargery — all were beautifully characterized with their own stories of heartbreak and joy,” Gupta says. But what interested her most of all was Pip’s rags to riches story as he “goes on a huge journey of self knowledge, wealth and penury.”

With its gripping story revolving around a cast of intriguing characters, “Great Expectations,” has long been a popular vehicle for adaptation on stage, film and television. Through these many renditions, it has remained a quintessentially English story set in the author’s Victorian London.

However, Gupta didn’t see her way to another London-set adaptation. Instead she takes creative liberties and guides the story into decidedly new territory by transposing Pip’s story to 1861 Calcutta without losing the essential qualities of Dickens’ storytelling. In her version instead of leaving the marshes of Kent for wealthy London, Gupta’s Pip leaves the Indian countryside for Calcutta, the 19th century center of British rule in India.

In a co-production, Remy Bumppo Theatre and Silk Road Rising stage the U.S. premiere of Gupta’s adaptation of “Great Expectations,” co-directed by Remy Bumppo artistic director Nick Sandys and Silk Road artistic associate Lavina Jadhwani. It will be staged in Silk Road’s intimate space where Yeaji Kim’s set and projections will transport the audience into Pip’s new world. The 12-member cast includes Anand Bhatt (Pip), Robert Hardaway (Magwitch), Anish Jethmalani (Joe Gargery), Linda Gillum (Miss Havisham) and Netta Walker (Estella).

Siddhartha Rajan from left), Anand Bhatt, Roderick Peeples, and Tommy Malouf in “Great Expectations.” | JOHNNY KNIGHT

Sandys was looking for a Dickens’ adaptation and came across Gupta’s play, which he says “opens up the novel in new ways.” He felt it was a perfect mix for Remy Bumppo and Silk Road. The idea of partnering with Remy Bumppo felt very organic, Jadhwani adds.

“This is a story with two writers so it felt only right to have two producing companies and two directors,” Jadhwani explains. “It’s a huge show, a really epic story told in 31 huge scenes.”

The novel translates easily into Indian culture because the story is so universal, Gupta says.

“Although Pip tries to forget and leave behind his Indian roots and become an ‘English gentleman,’ eventually, he learns to be proud of himself as an Indian,” Gupta explains. “Dickens exploration of British class and his hatred of the way the class system worked to keep the poor in terrible, lowly conditions and to be looked down on in society has it’s parallel in my version. Added to his poverty, the Indian Pip is looked down upon by the English.”

As the story begins, Pip, an orphan in a Bengali village, meets Magwitch, an African sailor with a criminal background, at a cremation ground near a holy river. There are other elements of Dickens’ story that also are tweaked but nearly all the dialogue comes directly from the novel, Sandys says.

“You recognize the story but it hits you with these amazingly colorful new images, which is kind of wonderfully double visioned,” Sandys says. “Fans of the novel will still see what they love and yet they will go on a new journey and a new experience and that’s the reason to do an adaptation.”

This is the first Chicago production for the London-based Gupta, a major British-Indian playwright. She comes from an aural story telling tradition and honed her skills writing radio plays and British TV series such as “Grange Hill” and “EastEnders.”

“My father used to tell and act out stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana (ancient Indian epic poems) when I was a child,” she says. “Becoming a writer seemed a natural thing for me. Caryl Churchill’s play ‘Top Girls’ was the play that made me think I could write stage plays.”

Gupta’s newest play, “Lions and Tigers,” debuting in August at London’s Globe Theatre, is about her great uncle Dinesh Gupta, a freedom fighter who was hanged by the British in 1930 at the age of 19.

“The play opens in August to celebrate 70 years since India’s independence,” Gupta says. “Then I go straight into rehearsals with my adaptation of Marina Lewycka’s novel, ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ at Hull Truck Theatre. And I’m also working on a musical and a feature film (‘Grace and Beauty’) for which I wrote the screenplay is being shot in the summer. It’s a very busy year.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.