EM Forster’s works often concern themselves with personal relationships and their clash with social mores, while in A Passage to India – his most acclaimed novel – he throws in political mores too.
David Lean brought the author’s sprawling tale to the big screen, while there have been a number of stage productions.
Here, adapter/director Simon Dormandy and his co-director Sebastian Armesto have opted for an intense, stylised storytelling, both physical and vocal, to enjoyable effect – the cast creating rich and eerie repetitive soundscapes and a visual landscape of people, places and things.
It’s simply albeit effectively staged, although narratively, Forster’s complex classic is pared down to the point where it can feel over-simplified, particularly in the caricature depiction of the tweedy and narrow-minded, casually racist and morally-superior British who corral themselves in their motte and bailey colonial club.
They’re personified by Edward Killingback’s city magistrate, and prospective groom, Ronny Heaslop, who views the Indians as pathologically untrustworthy, and his job as trying to dispense justice to the person he believes is lying the least.
Ronny (Edward Killingback) and Adela (Phoebe Pryce). Photo: Idil Sukan
Into this world drops earnest, nervy would-be fiancée Adela (Phoebe Pryce) and his mother Mrs Moore, straight off the boat at Bombay and both keen to experience the ‘real’ India and meet real Indians, with devastating consequences all round.
This is an oppressive India – colonial oppression, oppressive social structures, oppressive heat and, the physical oppression of the fabled but foreboding Malabar caves and their sinister echo, evocatively realised by the cast.
There are tensions every which way – between the Anglo-Indians and Indian population (the drive for Indian independence gathering momentum among the educated middle classes like the cultivated Dr Aziz and his friends), and internally between the British themselves, and also stark religious differences between Muslim and Hindu.
A Passage to India. Photo Idil Sukan
Asif Khan gives a strong and sympathetic performance as Dr Aziz, an exhausting dynamo of words and emotion, eager to please his new colonial chums but learning the hard way his compatriot’s warning: “You cannot be friends with the British”.
Liz Crowther and Richard Goulding meanwhile are also impressive as Mrs Moore, the widow whose warm openness entrances the doctor, and as Fielding, the English teacher whose desire to befriend members of the Indian population causes consternation and demonisation among the ‘club’ faithful.
The story unfolds against a backdrop of Kuljit Bhamra's live original music, although pace of the narrative feels somewhat unbalanced.
It careers along in the first half towards the key moment in the disquieting Malabar caves, and Aziz’s subsequent vilification, while it reaches a climax – his trial – relatively early in the second half.
But then it becomes somewhat soporific as the professional and personal fallout unfolds for a further half-an-hour.