In choosing to adapt Passage To India, simple8 couldn’t have picked a text that feels more relevant to the present moment. About the dangers of the West seeing itself as the policeman of the world. About how difficult communication is without understanding, and how impossible understanding is. About the small (and sometimes not at all small) insults and harms caused by those with good intentions. About whether women are believed, and how when they are it usually lasts just as long as their testimony suits the status quo.
However, despite the almost electric relevance of the plot, this production felt oddly old-fashioned, in a way that had nothing to do with the publication date of the source text or the period setting.
It was the style in which the text was adapted that felt old-fashioned. And here I don’t say old-fashioned because of a personal dislike of naturalism or immersion – the production aimed for neither, with the set a lovely minimalist mix of curtains and boxes, suggesting rather than showing locations. Despite being garbed in period costume, the actors remained around the outsides of the stage throughout, watching the action. There were also a wide range of beautifully put together and skilfully carried off physical theatre conventions – a train transforming into an elephant, or the shifting walls of a cave being created by sticks producing spectacle from simplicity. However, they had a sense of being pulled out of a box of well-loved tricks, more because they were appealing in their own right than as a response to the specificity of the text, and that feeling of aimlessness removed some of the excitement from them. Not only that but many conventions seemed to be sprinkled at random rather than sewn into the fabric of the work. This meant that some really enchanting techniques – I was particularly fond of some of their transitions, with separate scenes sharing the same space – were neither used to their full potential, nor was the rationale of when they were and weren’t used clear.
One of the conventions that popped up during the play was that of the characters narrating their actions and interior thoughts. At times these were some of both the most beautiful and rewarding moments in the play, with Forster’s words making meaningful metaphor from the plot before us. However, the seeming randomness of when this technique was used, and the fact it was rarely paired with any visual element onstage, made it feel like it was included because they gave up at translating these sections to the stage.
At moments almost all the performers onstage excelled themselves – Asif Khan was an energetic and charming Aziz, the affinity between him and Mrs Moore (played by Liz Crowther) was instantly felt and Ranjit Krishnamma had a perfect knack for the deeply sincere and accidentally funny. Overall however, the acting in the production felt both forceful and forced – voices a little too raised, pauses a little too planned. This carried through to and greatly detracted the moments of choral speaking that formed a core motif in the play – which rather than the mystery of nature instead invoked a couple of giggles in the audience.
There is nothing deeply wrong with this production, but neither does it have a sense of originality or excitement to recommend it beyond what one could get from reading the book. Throughout the play India is referred to as either a mess or a mystery – sadly this production leaned more towards the former.
Passage to India opened at Bristol Old Vic. It tours to Liverpool Playhouse, Churchill Theatre Bromley and Park Theatre.