Gentle reader, if you know me IRL, as the young people of today like to say, you’ll know that Mrs Chrisparkle and I are both Indophiles. We try to go there every year if possible, and there’s something about the country and its people that is beyond magical. So if there’s anything ever on offer that involves the concept of “India”, it’ll instantly grab my attention.
Thus I was excited at the prospect of this new adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage To India, a book I was required to read at school when I was nothing like mature enough to understand it properly. But I have fond memories of the film, with Peggy Ashcroft struggling in the heat as Mrs Moore becomes oppressed with the caves and the echoes. You don’t need me to tell you that Forster was not only a superb writer but also had an amazing ability to write books that cry out for being made into films. And indeed plays – this is not the first time the book has been dramatised for the stage, with a play hitting the West End back in 1960 before transferring to Broadway two years later.
But that is a different play from the one currently on offer in Northampton before it embarks on a brief tour. This has been adapted by Simon Dormandy, and, for the most part, I would say it is pretty faithful to the original and, wisely, eschews the trappings of modern stage design by conveying caves, courtrooms and the teeming world of India with the help of just a few packing cases and some bamboo rods. You wouldn’t believe how creatively you can present the illusion of an elephant, with ladies riding in the howdah, using just a few boxes, some sticks and a length of material. There’s a lot of psychology and imagination at work in the book, so it’s entirely appropriate for the audience to have to employ their own imagination fully to appreciate the setting for the play.
It’s 1910, the British Raj is in full control and there are some voices of dissent from the local people. The majority of the Brits in India are a snooty bunch who have no desire to integrate nor any intention of doing so. Furthermore, if they see any crossover between the two sides they do their best to dissuade any form of contact; using soft, persuasive tones on the polite English ladies, and barking cruelty to any native-born Indian who presumes to have Ideas Above His Station. One such man is Dr Aziz, respected in his own community but distrusted by the ruling magistrate, tax collector, chief of police and the like. Only one British man, Cyril Fielding, principal of the Government College to educate Indians, treats Aziz and the other local people with anything approximating common courtesy.
Mrs Moore and Miss Adela Quested, who’s in line to become engaged to Ronny Heaslop, Mrs Moore’s son, arrive in India with a refreshing curiosity to see the place and not merely to be fobbed off with a life simply confined to the Britishers’ Club. The local beauty spot – and all-round location of intrigue and fascination – the Malabar Caves, is a short distance away and Dr Aziz promises to show the ladies around it, much to the mistrust of the local Raj supremos. The caves are dark and mysterious, and any sound creates an extraordinary echo that disconcerts visitors and plays on their fears and imaginations. Mrs Moore can’t take it, the place gives her claustrophobia and she makes an early departure. Miss Quested, on the other hand, seems lost inside the caves and when Aziz tries to find her can only spot her abandoned field glasses. When she is eventually found Miss Quested accuses Aziz of attempted rape (only expressed in much more Edwardian language) and the justice system slowly wheels into action. He denies it of course, but only Fielding among the Brits gives his story any credence. What tenuous relationships there are between the two sides break down and life will never be the same again. And did he do it? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.
The production is at its best when it is working on our imagination; such as meeting the aforementioned elephant, creating the Malabar Caves out of bamboo sticks, suggesting a full and antagonistic courtroom with a few boxes and half a dozen people. Although, to be fair, I thought the depiction of two rowing boats on the water and their collision was less successful – there was simply too much happening on stage at one time to take it all in. Gauzy material strips, dangling down in front of the back wall, part conceal, part reveal the people who walk behind, giving the impression of thronging multitudes in all their colours. Slightly offstage musicians Kuljit Bhamra and Asha McCarthy deliver trickles of Indian music at moments of suspense and intrigue and it really augments the atmosphere. But the most impactful sound in the play is the ensemble’s often repeated mumble grumble bumble aboom aboom aboom of the echo in caves. It unsettles the audience just in the same way that it would have disconcerted Miss Quested. It’s not – actually – enjoyable to listen to. It’s quite irritating, repetitive, potentially silly and childish; annoying even. Just as it would be to the English ladies. So I guess it’s doing its job properly.
However, I got thoroughly confused towards the end. One of us lost the plot – was it me, or was it the production? The story has moved to the province of Mau where Aziz has made a new life for himself. He is (largely) reconciled with Fielding; but then it all seems to go off-piste. What was all that bouncing around between the two men, being trapped by a ribbon at the side of the stage then flung out into the centre again by two teams of villagers? It was like a rogue episode of Jeux Sans Frontières had rocked up in Kashmir. I half expected Eddie Waring to introduce the Fil Rouge. It felt like the ending of the story had become unnecessarily complex and that consequently it was failing to portray it clearly. The curtain suddenly falls on darkness and silence and everyone in the audience wonders – is that it? I suppose if the creative team are taking the earlier emotions of disconcertion and carrying them on to the bitter end, then it was successful; otherwise, I have to confess, it didn’t do it for me.
At the heart of the play is a very engaging performance by Asif Khan as Aziz. A beautifully enthusiastic delivery, revelling in the linguistic details of all his lines, superbly portraying that essentially Indian characteristic where you want to pull out all the stops to impress your guests. Once the shine has gone off the relationship, he also conveys that bitterness of disappointment and a refusal to pander to others’ whims. I also loved the natural dignity that accompanied every aspect of the personality he was playing. A really excellent performance.
He is matched by a cracking performance by Richard Goulding as Fielding, exuding generosity and decency, and tangibly hurt when it isn’t reciprocated. Liz Crowther is also splendid as Mrs Moore, a character who is so much more than just an archetypal little old lady. I enjoyed Nigel Hastings’ performance as Turton the Collector, ostensibly amiable and reasonable but powerfully showing his vicious and vindictive nature. Edward Killingback also gives a strong portrayal of how a baby face can conceal a really nasty personality! But everyone gives a good performance and there are no weak links in the cast at all. Inventive, creative and thoroughly enjoyable, my only concern with the production is in how it seems to lose its way in the final furlong. After its brief run in Northampton it travels on to Salisbury, Bristol, Liverpool, Bromley and finally with five weeks at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park.