Culture Clash

By Richard Barber

Winner of the 1924 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, Time magazine included EM Forster’s A Passage to India in its All Time 100 Novels list with the Modern Library also choosing it as one of the 100 great works of 20th-century literature. Set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s, it tells the story of two English women, Mrs Moore and Adela Quested, visiting the (fictional) state of Chandrapore. They befriend a local doctor, Aziz, who takes them on a tour of the local Marabar Caves where a mix of confusion and superstition collide to create an accusation of possible assault of Adela by Aziz.

The book was famously filmed by David Lean in 1984, starring Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness, James Fox and Judy Davis. Now, the enterprising simple8 company have brought it to the stage in a new touring production, adapted and co-directed (with Sebastian Armesto) by Simon Dormandy, which has arrived at London’s Park Theatre for a month’s run. The stripped-back presentation allows audiences to concentrate on Forster’s central question of whether true friendship and love can exist across the social and cultural divide between the British and Indians, particularly at a time when the former were imposing colonial rule on the latter.

But, as is so often the case when a literary masterpiece is pared back to a two-hour reading, complex themes and Forster’s command of language in the original are inevitable casualties. On a bare stage, the only props of any significance are substantial bamboo poles, with which the cast beat the floor as they intone a Krishna chant or – and this is extremely effective– use them to create the claustrophobic interior of the caves. This scene, which closes the first half, is the high point
of the evening, an escalating moment of drama that spills over into the second act and the trial of Aziz for supposed rape. When the charge is quickly thrown out of court, the production struggles to maintain dramatic propulsion.

But there are some strong performances from Asif Khan – as an increasingly disenchanted Aziz – Phoebe Pryce (daughter of actor Jonathan) as Adela, Liz Crowther as her older companion, and Richard Goulding as the bachelor Fielding, who ultimately unsuccessfully attempts to buck the trend and form a true friendship with the Indian doctor. In the end, though, nothing can match the richness and complexity of
the book.

Until March 24 at the Park Theatre, London N4: 020-7870 6876,