It’s impossible not to draw parallels during a visit to the theatre. And when viewing productions of vintage novels it’s hard to not be struck by that familiar epigram, ‘the more things change the more they stay the same’. India might be changed beyond all recognition almost 100 years on from EM Forster’s novel but A Passage To India still has a relevant and powerful message.
While friendship, empire, class and religious and racial harmony – or lack of it – are not unfamiliar themes this new production by Simpl8. But it also emphasises a lyrical, spiritual and almost existential reading of the text.
We are introduced to Mrs Moore and a potential daughter-in-law Adela and identify with their curiosities about India and desire to absorb its true essence. But her prospective husband Ronny and the various colony-club types he associates with view this with bewilderment or outright hostility.
The Indians needs to be civilised and kept at arm’s length. While that patronising attitude is in place all is right with the world, as far as the Indo-Brits are concerned.
They meet Dr Aziz, a local Muslim who has befriended Fielding – a more progressive emigre whose crumpled linen suit isn’t the only thing that marks him out from his countrymen – and he takes them on a trip to the forbiddingly dark, lonely Marabar Caves. And events intervene, as they are wont.
The coyly-described assault Adela suffers in the unknowable caves is not really explored, but the consequences are devastating for everyone. A Passage To India subsequently explores how Adela and Aziz both suffer their own individuals trails. So too Fielding, who makes himself an outcast among the British community who automatically side with the wronged young Englishwoman.
It’s never quite clear what this production makes of Adela here. There is perhaps a hint that she is attracted to Aziz and a hint that he does not reciprocate. And while the play acquits Aziz – we see his growing terror as he searches in vain for Adela, who loses herself in the Marabar Caves after a misunderstanding – it’s not clear what form the insult she suffers here takes.
Is she disorientated; does she suffer a panic attack? Does she allow others to infer that Aziz assaulted her without actually stating that he did? The play seems reluctant to make this clear, so the audience never quite knows what to make of this rather gauche and awkward young woman.
Not so Mrs Moore, who is forever changed by her own dizzying experience of the endless caves, explored here in an excoriating performance by Liz Crowther. So too Fielding and Aziz, whose friendship is never the same again. it’s a neat metaphor for the strained relationships of class, race and religion that typified the Raj, but Richard Goulding and the excellent Asif Khan bring heart and life to the dynamic.
In the end we get something halfway between a Merchant-Ivory film and The Tell-Tale Heart. It doesn’t work, not completely, but the journey is enjoyable. Friendships, love and difficult relationships are the fabric of the show but there’s something more, the echo from the eerie Marabar Caves, brought to life wonderfully by the cast with a minimal set and props, remain after the production – a mystery and a muddle.
A Passage To India
Until 10 February