REVIEW: A Passage To India
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REVIEW: A Passage to India, Salisbury Playhouse
Helena Gomm finds relevance for the present in echoes of the past. (Images: Idil Sukan)
Simon Dormandy’s engaging play opens with the chanting of lines from Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Passage to India’, a hymn of praise to the technological progress which Whitman saw as a means of bringing the nations of the world together in love, peace and harmony, informed by the spirituality of the East. The title of Forster’s novel, on which this play is based, is an ironic reference to this poem, as the story challenges the idea that the races can ever be friends, particularly in India where there are so many inherent divisions between its peoples: divisions of race, culture, wealth and religion.
By setting the story in 1910, even though the novel was published in 1924, Forster deftly avoided having to deal with the more brutal realities of British rule in India, notably the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 when British troops killed several hundred pilgrims at a religious festival. Forster’s British are snobbish and unpleasant, to be sure, but there is no real malice in them, ju1st monumental arrogance, insecurity and fear of ‘the other’, which causes them to stick to what they know – the club, the bridge parties and the polo – rather than getting to know the Indians around them, whom they consider uncivilised.
The only exception is Fielding, the principal of the government college, an independent, open-minded man who believes in treating the Indians as peers. A tentative relationship is beginning to blossom between him and Aziz, a Muslim doctor, who, though initially sceptical, has come to entertain the belief that friendship between British and Indian might be possible. These characters are strongly played by Asif Khan and Richard Goulding, and it is their portrayal of Aziz and Fielding’s crossing of the great divide between their two communities that forms the most interesting part of the play. There is a point of great beauty towards the beginning when the two, deeply engaged in conversation and able to put aside their cultural baggage, almost reach out to touch each other, but not quite, and the moment passes. In some ways, this production is all about touch – who is allowed to touch whom, and what it might mean if they did.
Into this situation come Mrs Moore and Adela Quested, just off the boat from Britain, and in India because Adela is about to become engaged to Mrs Moore’s son Ronny, the local magistrate. Both are anxious to encounter the ‘real India’, but their naive pursuit of this goal leads them to irritate the British, who would much prefer to keep the real India at arm’s length, and the Indians, for whom accommodating their desires means considerable trouble and expense.
The central event of the play is, of course, the visit to the Marabar Caves, where something happens to Adela (we never find out exactly what), causing her to accuse Aziz of assault. Despite their openness to social interaction with the Indians, the women are British to the core. Aziz has prepared a lavish breakfast banquet for them but, completely oblivious to the expense and trouble that he has gone to, both decline to eat anything. The most rudimentary good manners require them to eat something of this feast, even just a mouthful or two, but they won’t. Later, Adela offends Aziz by asking how many wives he has. She isn’t malicious, just ignorant and casually inconsiderate. We are instantly reminded of an earlier wry comment that all the British arrive with good intentions about their life in India, but within a short while they have become just as rude and arrogant as the rest. Interestingly, of all the things that the two communities could accuse each other of, rudeness seems to be the thing that concerns them most.
The consequences of Adela’s accusation and her subsequent retraction of it in court are wide-reaching: Aziz’s career is ruined, relationships between the British and the Indians become even more sour, Adela’s engagement is broken off and, worst of all, the friendship between Aziz and Fielding is wrecked.
Some years later, Fielding visits Aziz, now working in a different state. A number of misunderstandings are cleared up and there is some rapprochement. However, Aziz declares that they can never truly be friends until the British are driven out of India. Naively, in light of what happens within just a few years, he envisages an India run by the Indians where Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all live in harmony.
Preferring to focus on character and relationships, directors Sebastian Armesto and Simon Dormandy and set and costume designer Dora Schweitzer have used a simple set and minimal props. Nevertheless, a compelling sense of time and place is created, enhanced by clever lighting and Kuljit Bhamra’s beautifully atmospheric music, played live onstage.
Particularly powerful are the chants which open and close the play and which are used to portray the Marabar echo, an echo of almost supernatural force, which reduces any utterance made within the caves to the same primal sound – o-boum – and which is offered up as one of the explanations for Adela’s extraordinary accusations. We certainly get a sense of how claustrophobic the caves are for Mrs Moore (Liz Crowther), and the nihilistic power of the echo drives her sudden and disturbingly well-portrayed descent into bitter and snarling dementia.
The caves themselves and their various entrances are cleverly represented by members of the cast holding up bamboo poles. The cast as an ensemble work their socks off, transitioning seamlessly between playing the various speaking roles and doing service as caves, elephants, trains, jungle undergrowth and whatever else is needed to bring India to life.
This is a thought-provoking production that is well worth watching. The history and politics of India may have moved on a great deal since Forster wrote his novel, but its themes of social, cultural and religious division are as relevant today as they ever were.