A Q&A with the all-female creative and producing team behind Engine Room‘s Estella. Hear Kate McGregor (director), Maria Haik Escudero (composer) and Cassie Hodges (co-producer) chat about their radical reimagining of Charles Dickens‘ classic novel Great Expectations.
INTERVIEWER: Estella is a radical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. What inspired you to re-imagine this story?
KATE: When I was first thinking about developing a new adaptation, Great Expectations was one that both Cassie Hodges (Tales Retold) and I both loved and it had themes that resonated with us both. It’s the story of a man who leaves his simple, peaceful life behind to seek happiness through (essentially) living other people’s ideals. How happy are we when we are constantly striving from something more? During lockdown it felt like it was the little things that mattered – a walk with a friend, baking at home, time to think and just ‘be’– finding joy in where you are, when you can. This adaptation is about realising what is truly important to us and how these discoveries can lead to a stronger sense of identity and purpose.
INTERVIEWER: Where/who have you taken any inspiration from for any aspects of ‘Estella’?
MARIA: I’ve been listening to a lot of folk and traditional English music, tavern songs, court music, bagpipes, harpsichord music, fiddle…. Just trying to delve into the music that Dickens’ characters would have been listening to…. I find it’s the best starting point every time. I might end up writing something completely different but the inspiration is there and it creates a solid base..
INTERVIEWER: What do you feel is different from your adaptation to others? Why should the public come and watch your play?
KATE: It became clear early on that we weren’t interested in doing another version of Pip’s story with this adaptation. As an all-female creative team, the character that fascinated us was Estella. She’s adopted aged two and taken in by a woman who wears her wedding dress every day of her life, has stopped the clocks and never leaves the house. What kind of impact would that have on a child? And why does Estella never find out who her real parents were? She describes herself as not having a heart – is that really true? And so begun a mission of trying to discover the truth about this woman and what happens to her after ‘Great Expectations’ finishes. Anyone who loves a great story should see this play but especially those who want to see a female narrative take centre stage.
INTERVIEWER: Cassie and Kate, your theatre and producing companies (Theatre6 and Tales Retold) are both very strong believers of equality, representation, and sustainability.
Tell us a bit about this.
CASSIE: Tales Retold did an all female production of Antigone in 2016 at the hope theatre in Islington which won best fringe show with London Pub Theatres. We feel it’s important to retell classic tales in new and exciting ways. Perspective is very important and we can only understand a broader one when we explore many different voices, cultures and try to tell stories from those perspectives.
INTERVIEWER: Maria, you have composed an original score for the cast of three actor musicians. What was the composing process like for ‘Estella’? How did it start?
MARIA: As with all shows I’ve worked on with Kate, we discuss the style and period and how much we want to veer away from that and then I listen to as much as possible before I write anything. For example, Kate wrote a great scene at Miss Havisham’s funeral so I listened to a lot of Victorian hymns for inspiration. We also discussed the folk element of the music and I’ve been trying to develop simple melodies that the actors can improvise around. We want the music to weave in and out of the text and i’ve been trying to develop the music so that it is almost an extra branch of each of the main characters. I’ve been playing with rhythm too…
INTERVIEWER: Obviously Covid-19 has put a strain on so many of us in the last year, but particularly the arts industry. What has it been like creating ‘Estella’ during a global pandemic? What have you learnt from it?
CASSIE: It has been very challenging creating a show during a global pandemic. I think the last year has shown us that live theatre is viable but it needs to be safe for performers and audiences. Outdoor theatre works particularly well in the pandemic – also we are conducting our R&D on Zoom which has been an invaluable tool of communication.
INTERVIEWER: Without giving away any spoilers, what is your favourite moment/aspect of the play?
MARIA: I’m a great believer in subtext and in the things ‘unsaid’… My favourite element of the play are these “voices” that Kate has integrated (not saying any more than that!), that allow us to really delve deep into Estella’s emotional and psychological world. This ‘tool’ adds an element of mystery and magic but at the same time it also actually helps to reveal who Estella really is to us and the reasoning behind her choices and actions.
INTERVIEWER: Lastly, give us three words to describe the show!
KATE: Unexpected, imaginative, memorable.