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A CurtainUp Review
A Passage to India
In this latest, not to be missed, production of EM Forster's 1924 novel A Passage to India, Shared Experience are at the top of their game. With Nancy Meckler directing and Martin Sherman having written a faithful adaptation especially for Shared Experience, Forster's novel comes to the stage as an intense and evocative portrayal of the British and Indians in the fading days of the British Raj.
The novel tells the story of Dr Aziz (Paul Bazely) a young Indian whose admiration for the British turns to disaffection when he is falsely accused by an Englishwoman, Adela Quested (Penny Layden) of sexually assaulting her on an expedition to the Marabar Caves. The case brings out the mistrust and deeply held prejudice between the two communities. Aziz's conclusion is that the British have to leave India and that the only way forward is an entente between the Moslem and Hindu communities.
Although Forster illustrates the gross racist attitude of the British ex-patriot community, especially the ghastly Mrs Turton, he balances this with a sympathetic portrayal of Mrs Moore (Susan Engel) a visitor from England and her friendship with Dr Aziz, and indeed that of Aziz's friend, the tolerant College Principal, Mr Fielding (Ian Gelder) . The Indian characters too have their prejudices, see Aziz's reaction when he is accused of assaulting Miss Quested. He is mortified because she is so unattractive!
The play opens with an Indian religious story of a Mohammedan martyr who freed prisoners but who was killed by the soldiers. His body was buried at the bottom of a hill and his head at the top, so that there are two shrines to him, that of the Head Above and the Body Below. With red chiffon wrapped round the body, the myth is re-enacted with all its mystique and charm, the whole cast donning white Indian dress. The significance of the saint is that although he was a Moslem, local Hindus too worship him, and he means much to Aziz because he was himself imprisoned.
Inspired direction brings us a memorable elephant, maybe eight actors grouped and swaying, the riders clambering atop the magnificent animal for the journey to the Caves. In this production the Indian atmosphere is enhanced with snatches of tuneful Indian music, composed by Peter Salem from two musicians onstage, Chandru and Sirishkumar. The backdrop is a cloth of dark grey, burnished metallic effect but through which shines glimmers of light. The hot colours of India are there at the festival, rose petals and oleander blossom and more swirling red chiffon scarves. Aziz's tiny prison cell finds him crouched in the middle of the backdrop. His story of innocence, of his eating mangoes as a boy and bathing in the stream is recreated as a dream sequence. First Aziz tells the story, then later the theme is picked up with two boys playing and spilling mango juice as they eat the fruit. I liked too the drama of the court scene as the barristers argue about who should sit where and the case divides people along racial lines.
Susan Engels is excellent as Mrs Moore in a natural portrayal of a woman caught up in a society she does not like but who respects people regardless of their race. Guy Lankester takes the twin roles of her sons from different marriages, the priggish jodphured City magistrate, Ronny Heaslop and his gentler, younger half brother, Ralph Moore. Paul Bazely as Aziz moves from trying to please with the loan of a collar stud to Fielding, which makes Aziz the subject of ridicule, to a man embittered by injustice. Aaron Neil as the turbaned Professor Godbole delivers snatches of Eastern philosophy.
The two and three quarter hours of this superlative production of A Passage to India sped by and it deserves to find a world-wide audience.
LINKS to Curtain Up reviews of plays from Shared Experience
A Doll's House
The Mill on the Floss
The Magic Toyshop
Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
At This Theater
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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