Park Theatre, London – 24 March 2018
A Passage to India is a very traditional reworking of E.M. Forster’s classic 1924 novel.
Confession, disclaimer, excuse: I haven’t read A Passage to India. Sorry. So I’ll only review this production on its own merits, not with reference to its original text.
The story follows the British colonial, or ‘Anglo-Indian’ as they are referred to, tense relationship with the inhabitant Indians. Mrs Moore, played by Liz Crowther, and Adela Quester (Phoebe Pryce) befriend the Indian doctor Aziz (Asif Khan).
Drama unfolds when they explore the mystical Maraba caves and Adela becomes confused and disorientated: she accuses Aziz of assault. Racial tensions, initially uncomfortable, are ripped open by stereotypes and cultural distrust.
The stage is set deliberately bare, as explained by director Simon Dormandy, in order for the audience to impose their own imagination on a tale of mysticism and imagination. This is a simple enough trick played to good effect.
Actors sit around in the wings between scenes, suggesting the storytelling quality of the narrative. This technique would be worthy of specific praise if it was in any way a new trick: setting the stage bare in order to elicit imagination from the audience is such a generic, easy approach to playtelling, that it more often seems lazy than creative.
The quality of acting is generally high, though varied. Crowther evidently comes from the Shakespearean school of training where projection and grandeur are key. The effect of this is that her voice bounces around the whole auditorium with stunning ease.
However, it also means that other actors have to shout to reach the same volume as her. This is particularly true of Pryce, who seems on the point of breakdown throughout the play, a feeling only enhanced by the somewhat hysterical volume she is forced to adopt.
Indeed, a charge of overacting may be laid against quite a few of the actors playing Anglo-Indians: they are played in such a culturally insensitive way that it is hard to feel emotionally, morally engaged. Not that the audience should be sympathetic to racism (!), but that in order to include the audience in the tension being played out, we must at least feel empathy for both sides, even if one side is simply wrong.
The physicality and movement of the production was impressive and attractive. Though the ‘simple stage’ trick was not innovative, the cast uses sticks and a grey sheet to creative a giant elephant. Later, using the same sticks and the entire ensemble, a boat appeared with Adela and Mrs Moore convincingly rocking backwards and forwards. Some of the design was faulty- throwing confetti does not transport one to India, for instance- but overall, this was a very aesthetically coherent production.
Essentially, ‘A Passage to India’ is about racism and cultural assumptions. Both sides are suspicious of each other. The play opens with the proclamation that “One cannot be friends with the Indians!”, and the English, with varying degrees, are plainly racist. But with India, especially in the era of gap years, there is a special layer of racism which I feel this production fails to address.
Dormandy’s script criticises English racism: so far, so good. Furthermore, it criticises the idea that there is a ‘real India’, emphasising the cultural and religious diversity to be found there. However, and I feel that this element is crucial, Dormandy doesn’t address the phenomena of ‘gap year India’.
In the programme, Dormandy talks about his seven months spent backpacking in India and his feelings about the truthfulness, simplicity and rich humanity of India. This trope of mysticism, spirituality and essence is a simply Western simplification of India to represent an ‘other’ to the materialism of America and Europe. India is portrayed as a heartland for religion, simple life, truth, ascetism, sandals, whatever best fits your idea of ‘true humanity’.
Avoiding an extensive analysis of Western stereotypes, Dormandy’s production fails to address the essential cultural simplification which remains at the heart of ‘A Passage to India’, portraying India as a place where truth is revealed and we truly confront human identity.
‘A Passage to India’ was written in 1924 and though it’s anti-colonialist message remains an element of the modern narrative, there’s no reason to focus on Forster’s message alone: post-colonialism and the dialogue of racism have moved on since then.