To whom do we owe our loyalty? Is our first duty to look after one’s own – be they family, race or nation – or reach out the hand of friendship to a global community? These are the questions at the heart of Simon Dormandy’s thought-provoking stage adaptation of EM Forster’s 1924 classic novel, A Passage to India.
And they are questions that resonate, in the time of Brexit and America First. The internationalist option certainly feels like the nobler choice. But sometimes, as with the young Englishwoman Adela at the centre of Forster’s story, its most ostentatious advocates are the ones who engage least with the realities of other people’s lives.
“I want to see the real India,” she repeatedly insists, sounding as much like a 21st century gap year bore as an Edwardian who is soon to be engaged to the city magistrate. I was left unclear as to whether actress Phoebe Pryce’s shallow, almost caricatured portrayal was deliberate, but for Adela, India is little more than a series of exotic ‘experiences’ for her gratification, and the shallowness of her understanding eventually brings disastrous results.
Some of the Anglo-Indian racists, sitting on high in their no-natives club, are painted with equally broad strokes; cyphers for unpleasant attitudes on the other side of the debate and casualties, to an extent, of the need to simplify a complex book. But elsewhere there is more nuance. Asif Khan’s Aziz manages to be funny without being patronised as a comic turn – he is also proud, angry, kind and flawed. Liz Crowther as Mrs Moore offers a less showy yet more human and instinctive version of Adela’s intellectual curiosity, and Richard Goulding’s Fielding helps the audience explore motivations on all sides as he tries in vain to keen his multicultural vision alive. What he fails to see from his position of white privilege, and what Aziz comes to realise, is that genuine friendship will flounder unless anchored in equality. The two men are physically pulled apart at the end of the play by the combined political, cultural and social forces that divide them.
This exploration of the pair’s friendship forms part of an over-long coda to the main narrative, but most of the production, by award-winning company Simple8, rattles along. The staging is minimalist, with just a handful of packing crates and sticks by way of props, but this is no awkward modern re-imagining. Kuljit Bhamra’s on-stage live music combines with period costume to recreate the atmosphere of Forster’s India, while cast members double as trains, elephants and the menacing echo of the Marabar caves. Not every detail is totally successful – the trial scene felt rushed, the religious chanting towards the end a trifle naff – but overall this was two hours of theatre that offered evocative storytelling while simultaneously posing difficult questions. Far more satisfying to watch, flaws and all, than a production that claims to have all the answers.
Images by Idil Sukan
A Passage to India is at Liverpool Playhouse until February 19, 2018 and then on tour. For more information, click here.