Passage to India
Reviewed – 23rd February 2018
“A dynamic medley of devices, all enacted with the best intentions, but the overall effect is a bit of a jumble”
Within the first few moments of the play, we are thrown into the crux of the story: “One cannot be friends with the English”. This is articulated by Dr Aziz, the Muslim doctor at the heart of “A Passage To India”, based on E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel. Set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian Independence Movement in the run up to the First World War, the question – how can we love one another in a world divided by culture and belief – is what drives this drama.
A young British schoolmistress, Adela Quested, and her elderly friend, Mrs Moore, are visiting India, primarily for Adela to decide if she wants to marry Mrs Moore’s son, Ronny, a local city magistrate. During a trip to the fictitious Marabar Caves, Adela thinks she finds herself alone with Dr. Aziz in one of the caves (when in fact he is in an entirely different cave), and subsequently panics and flees; it is assumed that Dr. Aziz has attempted to assault her. Aziz’s trial, and its run-up and aftermath, bring to a boil the common racial tensions and prejudices between Indians and the British who rule India.
Simple8’s production tackles these issues, with a spirited mix of physical drama, expositional dialogue, internal monologue and original live music. A dynamic medley of devices, all enacted with the best intentions, but the overall effect is a bit of a jumble. The key topics lose weight under the lightness with which they are treated, which is no bad thing in itself, but the polemic is often wooden and the conversation peppered with laboured platitudes. There are exceptions. Asif Khan, who plays the sympathetic local physician Dr Aziz, and Liz Crowther’s Mrs Moore exemplify best the dichotomy of the relations among the Britons and the Indians. When they first meet in a mosque the doctor blindly chides the English woman for profaning his scared place, but is then disarmed by her respect for the native customs and they become friends. There is a rare warmth and empathy between these characters that unfortunately is too often absent elsewhere.
Where Simon Dormandy’s adaptation does shine, however, is when the characters step free from the action to address the audience. These more internalised moments allow for a crescendo of the live music, which elevates the drama immeasurably. The score, played live by the composer Kuljit Bhamra and musician Asha McCarthy is the highlight of the evening, but sadly underused.
Dormandy, who also directs with Sebastian Armesto, eschews the use of props and set, but unwittingly the characters and scenes suffer too. The complexity is reduced to a series of soundbites and the poignancy is often lost, although the committed cast do rescue the production and enable us to see the potential and the possible richness of the material that is hinted at. However, we never really get to the heart of the matter – the tensions and the dualities. Nor do we get a real sense of the over-riding mystery: Forster took great care in his novel to strike a distinction between the ideas of the “muddle” and “mystery” of India. This production, however, serves to blur the distinction. It is more muddle than mystery.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Idil Sukan
Passage to India
Park Theatre until 24th March