Theatre Review: A Passage to India @ Bristol Old Vic
by Polly Hember
Simon Dormandy’s adaptation of EM Forster’s seminal twentieth-century novel A Passage to India explores imperial India with simple, bold and highly effective creative staging where elephants, fireworks, caves, temples and courthouses unfold out of nowhere. The polemics Dormandy explores about culture, belief and segregation are as critical and raw now as they were a century ago. Mahnoud Ali tells Aziz ‘one cannot be friends with the English!’, and the play’s discourse positions itself around the divisions that separate Aziz and Fielding. A bold exploration of the ruinous effects of colonialism alongside a riveting tale of love and friendship; A Passage to India is a beautiful, flawless production.
The production company simple8 are known for their innovative and creative approach to theatre. It’s always a pleasure to see a book you’ve read come to life on stage, but simple8 and Dormandy handled the transition from print to stage with such ingenuity, this was a different experience altogether. Brilliant compression of certain periods keeps the weight and integrity of the original story intact but drives the narrative forward. Brilliant dialogue was punctuated by third person monologues, which provided emotive insight to the characters. With fantastic direction from Dormandy and Sebastian Armesto, the play handled tense issues about the clashes of culture, race and religion with masterful tact. From the good-meaning but ignorant Adela (played by a brilliantly sincere Phoebe Pyrce) who is desperate to see the “real India”, to a charming Aziz (Asif Khan) who conveys superbly likable humour alongside heart-breaking grief and annoyance he feels in the second act.
Nigel Hastings is a fantastic and sincere Turton, who goes against his colleagues and friends, siding with his dear friend Aziz. He defiantly combats imperialism and prejudice, believing in his friend with captivating conviction. ‘I’m not brave’, Fielding claims, ‘I’m just different’. This ‘difference’ encapsulates the hope present in Forster’s original work, and Hasting handles this moral courage that dispels the ‘herd instinct’ of exploitation with clear-eyed integrity.
The scene in the Marabar Caves is presented with astonishing intensity and trauma. The voices of the ensemble come together in a crashing wave of ‘muddle’ and echoes, reducing meaning into nothingness, exposing true feelings and introspection to Adela and Mrs Moore, plunging them into a terrifying abyss of sound. Aziz is wrongfully accused of assault and the first act ends, plunging the audience into an anxious interval, where I could barely wait for the actors to return to the stage.
"A bold exploration of the ruinous effects of colonialism alongside a riveting tale of love and friendship"
Artful and original music composed by Kuljit Bhamra accompanied the performance, double bass and percussion interjected at pivotal moments, intensifying the tension and emotion. The minimalistic set design gestured faintly to the dense descriptions of India present in the novel, and the beautiful music catalyses the audience’s invitation to imagine. The focus was on the story, the emotions and the ensemble.
A Passage to India succeeds in presenting both humour and horror in an incredibly accomplished production with phenomenal acting from the entire ensemble. This is an adaptation that engages with the forces inherent in human connection divided by culture, race and religion that seeks to challenge contemporary sensibilities, interrogating the legacy of colonialism with nuanced and creative staging.
All photography by Idil Sukan.
A Passage to India is at the Bristol Old Vic until 2 February 2018, book tickets here.