As Brexit beckons, is the sun setting once and for all on Britain’s time as an international power to be reckoned with? Or, as some seem to think, will we be welcoming a new dawn and reclaiming our rightful starring role on the world stage? Did the referendum result reflect a nostalgia for an imperial, pre-EU past, and what does it tell us about British attitudes towards immigration and multiculturalism? There are certainly plenty of reasons for thinking this a timely moment to re-visit A Passage To India, E M Forster’s classic early 20th century novel about Anglo-Indian relations during the colonial era.
Simon Dormandy’s intelligent, thought-provoking adaptation apparently began life some years ago as a school play at Eton, where he was Head of Drama. Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston were in the original cast (had Damian Lewis been a few years younger no doubt he’d have been in it as well). The script, like Forster’s novel, takes us all on a trip to the East, but within the play the most literal journey to northern India has been taken by Adela Quested, who’s engaged to Ronny, recently posted there to work as a magistrate. Accompanying her is Ronny’s mother, Mrs Moore, whose wisdom and humanity contrast strongly with her son’s lack of imagination and ready acceptance of his colleagues’ casual racism.
Adela and Mrs Moore both want to see the ‘real’ India, but whereas Mrs Moore has a genuine affinity with the country, Adela behind her well-meaning exterior is ill at ease and psychologically troubled. Aziz, an Indian doctor who is keen to befriend the English visitors, organizes for them an expedition to the mysterious Marabar caves. Other British characters have misgivings about the irregular outing, and believe they have been proved correct when it ends disastrously, with Adela accusing Aziz of sexual assault. The trial that follows is tense and emotionally charged though surprisingly brief (unlike the closing phase of the play, which perhaps could have been less protracted).
A large cast effectively portrays the uneasy co-existence between the two communities, as the play explores the possibilities of connection between them. We see the clash of cultures as repressed, rational and orderly West meets, sometimes comically, the spontaneity, instinct and mystery of the East. Asif Khan is excellent as Aziz, convincingly showing how and why his initial charm and optimism are replaced by bitterness and cynicism. His experience threatens his friendship with Fielding (sensitively played by Richard Goulding), the college principal whose decency and compassion mark him out from his fellow Brits. Phoebe Pryce captures well Adela’s naïve enthusiasm and underlying mental fragility. Liz Crowther is also very impressive as the strangely insightful Mrs Moore, whose visit to the Marabar caves, like Adela’s, proves to be life-changing.
The sets are sparse, though a sense of place is wonderfully evoked by composer Kuljit Bhamra’s hauntingly atmospheric music (played live on stage by Bhamra himself and Asha McCarthy). Repetitive chanting and skillful use of lighting effectively suggest the threatening, claustrophobic darkness of the caves.
This is a strong, ambitious production that to its credit attempts to do justice to the depth and complexity of the original novel.
**** Thought-provoking exploration of Britain’s colonial past
Photos: Idil Sukan
A Passage To India continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 10 February 2018.