Writer: E.M Forster
Adaptor: Simon Dormandy
Director: Sebastian Armesto and Simon Dormandy
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
“One cannot be friends with the English”, and the examination of this warning that runs through E. M. Forster’s celebrated novel A Passage to India which presages the fight for Indian independence in the year’s leading up to the First World War. There is no denying the world-wide impact of Britain’s colonial expansion, and in Simon Dormandy’s spirited stage adaption of Forster’s story, the modern parallels are strikingly clear.
Eager to know the real India, the newly arrived Adela joins her friend Mrs. Moore on a trip to meet her new acquaintance Dr. Aziz. While a tentative and mutual respect develops between people clearly demarcated by race and gender, local English society takes a dim view of intermingling. After a trip to the dark and echoey Marabar Caves ends in accusation and ignominy, the fragile tolerance between the English and Indian people starts to fracture with political and personal ramifications for all involved.
Simple8’s production is a thoughtful mix of dramatized scenes, extracted monologue and descriptive passages lifted directly from Forster’s writing, with some dynamic physical theatre interpretations of some of the more dramatic scenes. These don’t always exist in perfect equilibrium, but on the whole this production makes meaningful choices that bring Forster’s complex and layered novel to life.
Its weakest section is at the beginning as character and themes are introduced rather hurriedly, so, at rather a pedestrian pace, the audience is moved between a series of barely distinguishable rooms as people indulge in stilted and stagey conversations, that are not entirely a reflection on Forster’s writing. Several times, individuals describe beautiful views and the vibrancy of the culture without reflecting that on stage, making the action seem rather flat.
Once A Passage to India gets to the key point in the story, however, Simple8’s innovative approach shines through, bringing a sense of awe and impending danger to the scene at the caves. Using sticks, cloth and themselves, the company create a train, the entrance to the caves and a delightfully improvised elephant to transport the two ladies to their destination. The use of coordinate chants, full auditorium black-out and match-lit caverns nicely evokes the enveloping darkness and the claustrophobia of this pivotal moment.
This more dynamic approach continues into the second half, so as the plot unfolds, the growing strain and implication of Adela’s actions filter through the story effectively. Writer and co-director Simon Dormandy has married key passages in Forster’s text with dialogue to give the audience a sense of the internal and external life of key characters, while retaining the more poetic language of the novel. It’s a technique that works well on the whole, adding a reflective quality to the piece, although the narrated sections are more convincingly played than the scenes at times.
Asif Khan takes Dr Aziz on a sympathetic and credibly journey from overly genial, and largely servile, host eager to entertain his new British friends, to a man permanently estranged from imperialism and forced to act against it. Despite his touching friendship with Richard Goulding’s Fielding, Khan’s performance makes this a journey of Indian self-discovery giving his character an added richness.
Goulding as the friend to all, does well to display his essential decency, torn between social duty, his unbiased humanity and the courage to stand by his principles. As local villain Ronnie, Edward Killingback is suitably bigoted and outraged, while Tibu Fortes as Aziz’s lawyer Hamidullah makes a passionate case for independence and justice. Phoebe Pryce brings out the academic interest in Adela but her sudden emotional transformation in Act Two is less well charted, while Liz Crowther is an ethereal and kind presence as Mrs. Moore who seems most affected by events.
Once the case is resolved, attention does begin to wane despite a colourful and exciting finale. This production of A Passage to India is thoughtful and considered, appreciating both the world Forster creates and the elegance of his writing style. Not all of Simple8’s theatrical gambles pay off but, after a slow start, there is much to enjoy and even more to learn about the consequences of being friends with the English.
Runs until: 24 March 2018 | Image: Idil Sukan