A Passage to India
E M Forster,adapted by Martin Sherman
Shared Experience have built up a great reputation for stunning adaptations of major novels. In recent years, they have brought Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre and Mill On the Floss to the stage and provided new insights and great entertainment in each case.
Last year, they moved to a more modern novel, Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop, with almost equal success. Now, with the assistance of playwright Martin Sherman, most famous for Bent, they have taken on E M Forster's panoramic view of India. This was perhaps a slightly dangerous venture in that Merchant and Ivory have already produced a famous adaptation, most memorable for Joan Plowright's performance as Mrs. Moore.
This is ostensibly the story of a visit to India by the mother and prospective wife of a junior dignitary, Ronny, played with incredibly stiff back and upper-lip by Guy Lankester, looking like a piles sufferer throughout.
The class and caste systems are very carefully laid down and when the two women decide to challenge societal norms,they set off a time bomb that will change all of their futures. This comes on a life-changing trip by Dr Aziz and the ladies to the mysterious Marabar Caves.
The liberals that assist the ladies in their efforts are, on one side, the very highly strung Dr Aziz, played by Paul Bazeley, and on the other, the frustrated schoolmaster, Fielding (Ian Gelder). It is they who allow the ladies an insight into not only the internal workings of Indian society but also true humanity. Finally, white man and native also find a deep love that almost transcends the platonic.
The main theme of the play, that of separation, is introduced by the Chorus/Godbole, an ironic performance from Aaron Neil. The dichotomy is seen to split every element of this artificial society. The English and the natives don't get on, but then neither do the Hindus and the Mohammedans. There are similar problems within the individual groupings.
By the end of the play and the visit to the Marabar Caves, no one is very much happier but they have all learned a great deal about life and themselves. Susan Engel gives an excellent performance in the Joan Plowright role of the wise old English lady, Mrs Moore, and Penny Layden catches much of the confusion of the abused, in more ways than one, Adela Quested.
There are many nice touches of the kind that Shared Experience are renowned for but this is one of their more naturalistic productions under the direction of one of their adaptations experts, Nancy Meckler. It spends rather too long in second gear before coming to the cave and trial scenes when it really takes off. This is the case with both the plot and the artistry of the production.
While it may not be one of their best productions, for its cool, anthropological examinations of those strange beasts, the Anglo-Indians and their subjects, it provides much food for thought.
A Passage to India plays at the Riverside Studios until 22nd February.
Steve Orme reviewed the 2004 touring version, with a different cast, at the Nottingham Playhouse.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher