Stage & Screen

Great Expectation's Esh Alladi: 'A mirror to also reflect our current times'

As his triumphant run of 'Great Expectation' comes to a close at the Royal Exchange, actor Esh Alladi chats to &ASIAN about his experiences, and why audiences should catch the production while they still can.
Esh Alladi (Pip, left), in 'Great Expectations'. Photo: Ellie Kurtz
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Great Expectation's Esh Alladi: 'A mirror to also reflect our current times'

What was the process of translating an iconic Dickens character into an Indian identity? 

It all starts with the script which Tanika has beautifully adapted and contains all of the great things of Dickens in terms of it’s story, it’s plot its incredibly complex characters and really using all the joyful and wonderful things in the novel and takes the social political landscape that Tanika has put it into and seeing how those pressures deepen and broaden the scope of the character.

Esh Alladi (Pipli) and Giles Cooper (Herbert). Photo: Ellie Kurtz.

How do you immerse yourself in a role? Do you emulate the character using similar personal experiences as a driving force, or do you mentally transform into the character entirely?

Pipli starts as a 10 year old boy at the beginning of the play and you see the journey from rags to riches to rags again and so there is a degree of transformation both mentally in terms of the innocence and perspective of a 10 year old boy who has experienced what he has already experienced in his life which is great trauma and losing his parents and then what the world has done to him and does to him throughout the course of the play and how that changes. And then it’s about using sometimes similar past experiences but a lot of the time it’s through research and talking to people and working with the director as to how to create the different truths and emotional experience of it.  

In the original novel, Pip initially suffers because of his low class and being an orphan. How did the additional theme of colourism augment the story of Pipli?

With the added element of colourism he cannot change his race, so despite everything that happens to him there is still the complication and the added complexity of his race so even when he’s with Estella and talking about his life he is still unable to be ‘truly English’ and this further adds to the recognition which we see in texts like Pygmalion it is not enough to have money and class change, whole structures and perceptions need to change for their to be true equality.

This is further augmented in Malik’s story (Magwitch in the original) as a Black man within India at that time and he comments that the Black man is treated worse than the Brown and so that shows even within India and within its own structures who colourism plays a role and what that means for these characters and their experiences of the world.

Esh Alladi (Pipli). Photo: Ellie Kurtz.

How have you utilised the Royal Exchange's central staging to bring the character to life, and enrich the audience's experience?

This is all done in conjunction with our incredible director Pooja Ghai, our incredible movement director Neil Bettles and the amazing lighting and soundscapes that have been created by Joshua Carr and Arun Ghosh. All of that is heightening a design of Rosa Maggoria whois just incredible. We get to inhabit this beautiful world that is theatrical and symbolic and takes us into that period in India but also gives us a sense of what’s to come in the sense of its history.

Being an actor in the middle of that you are held by the design but also when it’s all around you, you focus in on the person you are acting with and it just makes you a better actor and I just love the Royal Exchange and I think it makes all actors better.  

If you were given one more hour with an audience to run free with your character, what might that improvisation look like?

This is a really fun question. When adapting a really epic novel if you were to do everything in the novel it would take three days. For me, I’d just love to show more of his life in the village, all the visits to Miss Havisham, how he learned, what he learned there and grow his love with Estella and then he becomes this other type and show the contrast between the two. So it’s deepening throughout. I’d like to show his friendship with Herbert, his downfall and when he loses all his money and everything that happens.

Esh Alladi. Courtesy of Esh Alladi.

If you could take another piece of classic literature and adapt it in a South Asian setting, what character would you love to reimagine?

There are so many beautiful bits of literature that I would love to see in a South Asian setting. I’m a big Jane Austen fan and I love Sense and Sensibility, it is one of my favourite novels and the Emma Thompson’s adaptation is one of my favourite films so I’d love to play one of the men in that, Colonel Brandon or Edward Ferrars. I think there is something really joyful in this particular adaptation and in the politics of Dickens as well, so maybe it’s another Dickens novel that I’d love to see.

What was it like working with Pooja Ghai and Tanika Gupta on this production, and how did they ensure you carried their vision accurately?

Pooja and Tanika I’ve had the pleasure of working with several times before and for me it’s like returning home. I trust them both implicitly, their skill, their immense talent and they are just two of the most kind hearted and empathetic humans I’ve met and I always have a really good laugh with them and it was because the trust they have in me and that I have from them that we were able to portray what they wanted from this adaptation.

All I hope is that I’ve done this justice and I certainly am proud of what we have created.

Catherine Russell (Miss Havisham). Photo: Ellie Kurtz.

In your own words, how do you think Great Expectations benefits from its Indian reshaping?

It’s a beautiful novel in itself. It has so many wonderful characters. It’s a great plot, a great story and epic in its nature and all the twists and turns are just wonderful to behold. What it gains from the Indian reshaping is extra depth and breadth and by applying the social/political lens we can look at the relationships of class, colour and race, the effect of colonialism not only on the country but also on our hearts and minds and the people who had to live within it.

It also gives it a mirror to also reflect our current times when we look at our leaders like we have right now, and thinking about our identities as Asian people but as Asian British people and what gets lost in assimilation and also what we gain as well.

Can you imagine adaptations like these making the big screen? Or do you think the charm is preserved in a live theatre production?

I think having seen that amazing David Copperfield drama that Armando Iannucci did with Dev Patel at the centre, I think there is no reason why adaptations couldn’t make the big screen although there is a distinct and unique charm to theatre and the liveness to that, and it is always something that I have adored.

I would love to see adaptations like this make the big screen. I would love to see stories that have taken the themes that we explore within this adaptation being explored on the big screen for everybody to see as well.

What advice would you give young Asian actors wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Just go for it. Now is a wonderful time to be a young Asian actor. I would encourage them to not only act but create, write, produce and go and see absolutely everything that is out there and champion their own stories, their own authentic voice and don’t ever try to be someone that you are not but really embrace everything you are.

Tickets for Great Expectations can be found here.

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