A Passage to India

E M Forster, adapted by Martin Sherman
Shared Experience at Nottingham Playhouse and Touring
(2004)

Martin Sherman can hardly do any wrong. He's currently hotter than a vindaloo. His new version of Pirandello's Absolutely! (perhaps) was a huge success in the West End and now his adaptation of E M Forster's 1924 novel is enhancing Shared Experience's reputation for bringing classics to the stage.

The company is making its first visit to Nottingham Playhouse. On the strength of this co-production, Shared Experience will no doubt be invited back again and again.

A Passage to India confirmed that Forster was one of the finest writers of the 20th century. The story revolves around upper-class Adela Quested who is accompanied to India by her future mother-in-law Mrs Moore. Before Adela marries the Chandrapore magistrate she wants to discover the real India.

The two women meet welcoming Dr Aziz who invites them to visit the Marabar caves. Adela's experience there leads to Aziz being charged with attacking her; the resulting court case exemplifies the differences between the English and Indian cultures.

Forster criticises the English stiff-upper-lip mentality, aloofness and prejudice towards Indians. His novel is multi-layered and can be interpreted in many different ways. Sherman has wisely resisted the temptation to make the stage version too complex. He relates the story from the Indian point of view, presenting archetypical English qualities in an almost matter-of-fact way, with lines such as "The kindest thing you can do to a native is to let him die".

The mystery of what actually happened in the Marabar caves is examined from several different angles: friendships are tested, attitudes are called into question and relationships can never be the same again. It's handled sensitively and imaginatively by director Nancy Meckler.

There are several commendable performances by the cast of eleven, including Alex Caan as Aziz who changes from the personable, outgoing doctor into a hardened character unsure of where to put his trust; William Osborne as Fielding, the schools inspector whose relationship with Aziz deteriorates to such an extent that only a British withdrawal from India can repair the damage; Fenella Woolgar, perfectly cast as the upper-class Adela who is transformed from a flighty adventurer into a confused woman who is cajoled into going to court despite being unsure of the truth; and Susan Tracy, the matriarchal Mrs Moore who becomes disillusioned with life when she realises how cruel justice can be.

Sherman's adaptation involves the Hindu mystic, Godbole, being turned into a narrator. Antony Bunsee, last seen in these parts at Derby Playhouse as a meldramatic Dracula, is delightful in the role.

The whole production is full of the colours, sounds and aromas of India. Two musicians playing violin and tabla are on stage throughout. You even sense the heat that makes the Indians as well as the British uncomfortable.

There are other deft touches which increase your enjoyment: Mrs Moore and Adela get to ride an elephant, formed by seven actors huddling together; all the cast quiver in unison when they're on a rickety train; and they curl up as rocks when Adela suffers her experience in the caves.

It's a stylish, admirable performance. Nottingham will no doubt welcome the opportunity to share similar experiences.

"A Passage to India" runs until October 23rd before transferring to New York, Liverpool, Poole and Manchester

Philip Fisher reviewed the 2003 production, with a different cast, at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith

Steve Orme