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A Passage To India: The Park Theatre, Finsbury Park

Published by: Elaine Pinkus on 23rd Feb 2018 | View all blogs by Elaine Pinkus

Based on the novel A Passage To India by EM Forster, adapted by Simon Domandy and performed by simple8.

It is pre World War 1, at a time of British imperialism and colonialism. Forster’s A Passage to India was an observant critic of the assumptions made by those who settled into this vast nation of many cultures. The unearned holding of power and the misdirected autocracy of the British, demeaning those whose land they usurped, is made clear through their bigoted and racist attitudes and behaviour, performed with conviction by simple8.  India was a country keen to have its own independence but also a  land of many cultures and castes where social diversity, intolerant of each other, prevented that very dream.

Having seen the David Lean film of the novel with its vivid scenery, beautiful costumes and vibrant colour, I was sceptical of it being produced as a play in so small a theatre space. How would it be effective? How could it be convincing? And yet it was! Simplistically set on a stage whose colour represented the dust and the sand, we were transported through the power of suggestion and imagination to the magnificence of the colourful sunsets, the Maribar hills, the bleak and dangerous Maribar caves, the torrential rainfall and the hanging mangoes. We travelled on elephants and horses, shook unsteadily in train carriages and shared the fearful sensations of the echoes that resonated even after we had left the claustrophobia of the caves. And yet there was no technology, no super-imposed film effects. This entire production, in its seeming simplicity, allowed us to suspend reality and uphold belief. But this was not simplistic. It was carefully directed by Sebastian Armesto and Simon Dormandy via the excellent collaborative physicality of the company whose numerous tableaux captured the essence of India.  

Forster’s novel was inspired by Whitman's poem of the same name which held that the physical journey to India is only a prelude to the spiritual pathway to God. A notion held by the goodly Mrs Moore (Liz Crowther) and the earnest Dr Aziz (Asif Khan). But this spirituality cannot be achieved in a country that lacks its own harmony in its diversity; a people who cannot hope to connect with the British colonisers who do not understand India's mystery. Just as the many castes and cultures of India fail to unite in their common desire for independence, so too do these disconnected peoples fail to harmonise. Those who have taken and assume the power see the Indians as a sub-class, inferior to their own and with whom they cannot socialise or integrate but rather use for their own ends.

Credibly portrayed are the contemptible and despicable Callenders (Matthew Douglas and Hannah Emanuel), McBryde (Christopher Doyle) and Turton (Nigel Hastings). Clearly they do not intend to live alongside the Indian people. Rather thay will govern them. Genial college master, Cyril Fielding (Richard Goulding) strives to bridge that gap but is in part naive and misguided and achieves only to disappoint Aziz (Asif Khan) who has tried desperately to close the divide but does not understand the nuances, hypocrisy and twisting turns of the British, despite the warnings of his more aware associates whose contempt of the oppressors is evident. Ultimately Aziz's eyes are opened: 'you cannot be friends with the English'. There too is Adela (Phoebe Pryce) who in her priggish and proper manner claims she truly wishes to befriend and know the Indians rather than be a tourist in India. Nowadays we might accuse her of self delusion.

A Passage To India - The Company. Photo by Idil Sukan_preview.jpeg

 The Company

At its start and throughout the production is the atmospheric music of Kuljit Bhamra, performed by Kuljit Bhamra and Phoebe Pryce and variations of lighting (Prema Mehta) which create the burning heat of Chandrapore and the claustrophobic darkness of the Maribar caves. And so the scene is set. We are in Forster’s (and Whitman’s) India. The mood is set and the mystery of India is evoked.

A Passage To India - Kuljit Bhamra and Meera Raja (live music). Photo by Idil Sukan_preview.jpeg

 Kuljit Bhamra and Meera Raja

Against this and at the core of the novel/play is the harsh echoing of the caves, performed by the company who beat wooden poles on the stage boards and whose voices slowly gather to a screaming crescendo. This is an echo that suggests madness, fear and terror, that reduces everything to nothing and yet is everything. Mrs Moore (Liz Crowther), in her search for God and reason is shaken beyond her wits; Adela hallucinates and imagines an experience that causes her to make false accusations against the only Indian individual with whom she has tried to make a friendship. And so begins the downward spiral that culminates in a severing of any hope of partnership of the two cultures and serves only to ignite the already smouldering resentment that hovers so close to the surface.

Some may find the performed echo to be annoying and bothersome. It is lengthy and loud. However, I believe that it achieved its purpose. It was maddening, almost deafening at times, but it enabled our imagination to transcend into the terrifying experiences of these two women.

A Passage To India - Liz Crowther (Mrs Moore). Photo by Idil Sukan_preview.jpeg

Liz Crowther (Mrs Moore)

This question at the heart of A Passage to India challenges us today just as it did a hundred years ago. With their new adaptation of Forster’s masterpiece and a diverse company of fourteen, simple8 finds in the past a mirror for our own divided times, carefully re-imagining this ground-breaking novel for contemporary Britain.

Simple8 is an award winning ensemble company who specialise in creating innovative and bold new plays - all performed on a shoe string. The sincerity of their performance in A Passage To India and their commitment to the portrayal made effective Dormandy's adapted piece. I thoroughly enjoyed it and left the theatre deep in thought.

A short postscript, the running time for this production is 2.5  hours including a 20 minute interval. The age guidance given is 7+. On a personal note, I do not think this production would suit young children and would recommend it to an adult audience.

(Whilst writing this review, I would like to add that my recent visits to the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, have been highly rewarding and I would recommend this theatre for its exploration into different writings and productions.)

Photography: Idil Sukan


Venue: Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, N4 3JP

Dates: 20 Feb – 24 Mar 2018

Age guidance: Suitable for 7+

Performances: Tue – Sat Evenings 7.45pm, Thu & Sat Matinees 3.15pm

Parents & Babies: Wed 21 Mar, 1pm

Prices: Previews £18.50, Tue-Thu & Sat Matinees Standard £20.00 - £29.50, Concessions £18.50 - £22, Child £15, Young Patrons £10 (20 – 27 Feb)
Booking: / 020 7870 6876

*10% telephone booking fee, capped at £2.50 per ticket.


1 Comment

  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 5 months ago
    Thanks, Elaine. Lovely review.
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