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A Passage to India review at Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton – ‘an evocative adaptation’

Edward Killingback and Phoebe in A Passage to India at Royal and Derngate, Northampton. Photo: Idil Sukan
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When it was published in 1924, EM Forster’s A Passage to India was provocative. Now, its metaphysical musings about existence feel naive in the face of the brutal reality of pre-Independence India.

Mrs Moore (Liz Crowther) and her prospective daughter-in-law, Adela (Phoebe Pryce), visit her son, Ronny (Edward Killingback), a young and ambitious magistrate in colonial Northern India.

The women, who want to see the ‘real’ India, meet Aziz (Asif Khan), a Muslim doctor who believes that the English and Indians can be friends. But after a trip to the ancient Marabar Caves, Adela accuses him of assault.

Simon Dormandy’s new adaptation of the novel cuts a clear line through Forster’s prose. He draws out the wryly dry humour targeted at the patronising bigotry of the British and their talk of ‘civilising’ India.

The play also highlights the novel’s comparison of systems of faith — Christianity, Islam and Hinduism — as part of its wider questioning of whether social unity is ever truly possible. The deadening echo of the mysterious Marabar Caves is one fearful answer.

In trademark style, Simple8’s production – co-directed by founding member Sebastian Armesto alongside Dormandy – strips away props and set. The staging creates place and atmosphere out of fluid choreography, Kuljit Bhamra’s music and Prema Mehta’s lighting.

This is particularly evocative during the sequence in the caves, as the blank-faced ensemble’s humming reaches a crescendo and ever-shifting movement captures the disorientation of the visitors’ trip into darkness.

But there’s something a little jarring about this intensely metaphorical treatment of India – about the way it is dissolved so purely into stage-work. While it isn’t glib, the seamless poetry of the imagery nevertheless turns history into a hook for Forster’s shaky mysticism.

This production also fails to overcome the novel’s problematic treatment of Adela. In spite of a strong performance from Pryce, her experience in the caves is subordinated to the role of a narrative device. She’s given profound things to say, but doesn’t own her voice.

Crowther strikingly catches the despairing snarl of nihilism in Mrs Moore after the Marabar Caves, but the men get more to work with. Aziz’s journey from excitable enthusiasm, to embittered cynicism, and, finally, to cautious hope is well charted by Khan.

Aziz’s tentative friendship with Richard Goulding’s Fielding – an isolated, pro-Indian Brit stranded in the ranks of a fearful ruling class that is willing to use Adela to keep things as they are – lies at the play’s heart. The power of their scenes is in the faltering gestures.

Watching A Passage to India is a complicated experience. It’s an accomplished production, but one accompanied by a nagging sense that time has overtaken the novel that both feeds and constrains it.

Playwright, actor and producer Asif Khan: ‘As a Muslim, I felt I could bring something more authentic’

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An evocative adaptation of EM Forster’s once ground-breaking novel about India and empire