Review by Oliver Wake
Edwin Morgan Forster published his fifth novel, A Passage to India, in 1924. It was an instant success, and has now attained ‘classic’ status. Its story of colonial abuses, racism and friendship in British India before the First World War remains shocking and deeply moving. To me it is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, and certainly one of my favourites, so I was eager to see this new stage version, co-produced by the simple8 company and Royal & Derngate, Northampton.
As I’d anticipated, the first act includes all the main incident up to an including Miss Quested’s alleged “insult” in the Marabar caves, with the second act covering the outraged British reaction, the trial of Dr Aziz and the fallout when the case collapses.
At least one previous dramatisation has made the trial the focal point of the whole play, but here dramatist Simon Dormandy goes the other way, allocating only a few minutes to the trial scene. Indeed, the scene feels rather perfunctory and we get little sense of the spectacle it provides the local community in playing out British vs Indian tensions.
Although unexpected, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, allowing plenty of time for the post-trial recriminations and consequences, which are where some of the best material can be found in the book. At times, however, it does make the second act feel anticlimactic.
Where conventional drama cannot adequately express the original text of the novel, Dormandy has the characters lapse into narration. This could easily have become confusing or alienating but, kept to only brief, occasional instances, it works well. Dormandy is also careful to preserve the wit of Forster’s text, with a number of genuinely funny jokes puncturing what might otherwise have been an oppressively solemn drama.
If the adaptation disappoints in any way, it is only in the extent to which it has to compress the rich, multi-faced novel to make it fit the stage. Forster’s characters and their relationships are deeper and more complex than the play can convey, and the setting of Chandrapore beside the Ganges, almost a character itself in the novel, is never fully established. Yet, there is a limit to what came be incorporated in two hours of stage time, so to criticise this reduction too much would be unfair.
Dormansy and Sebastian Armsto, both directing, have opted to stage the piece without conventional sets or props, beyond a handful of packing cases which double for all manner of seats or platforms. At times, bamboo poles are used by the large cast to suggest settings, such as the Marabar caves and a train. Perhaps the most impressive example of this was the realisation of an elephant ride, using just these poles to manipulate a grey sheet representing the elephant’s head and trunk. Good use is also made of varied lighting, with one sequence lit only by matches held by the cast. The live Indian music, specially composed by Kuljit Bhamraand, also does much to establish atmosphere.
The play benefits from a strong cast, and there are no poor performances. However, the main plaudits go to Asif Khan as Dr Aziz, the focal point of the play, who is only rarely off the stage. He convinces as the young Doctor who, at the beginning, is eager-to-please and befriend the British but becomes sullen and bitter after the unfounded allegation against him before, finally, some years later, regaining a measure of optimism for inter-race relations in an anticipated post-colonial future. Khan is a bundle of nervous energy in his early scenes but seems to have genuinely aged by the conclusion, showing a man matured but also damaged by his experiences.
Coming to the play with a considerable weight of expectation, I feared I would be disappointed. However, I was impressed by its script, performances and production methods. A Passage to India is recommended both to those who know and love the novel, and to those who have never encountered the story before.