A Passage to India
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre Autumn 2004 and tour
Shared Experience is a highly-regarded touring company that specialise in literary adaptations and finding new theatrical vocabularies for translating works from page to stage.
But their current staging of Martin Sherman's adaptation of E. M. Forster's 1924 novel is not one of their most successful accomplishments.
Forster's novel is about culture shock. Two British women come to India, the younger (Fenella Woolgar) to marry the elder's son, a colonial officer (Simon Scardifield) .
More open to the new country than the very insular resident Brits, they befriend an Indian doctor (Alex Caan), who invites them on a sightseeing excursion to nearby caves.
There, both women have traumatic experiences. The older (Susan Tracy) has a sudden sense of her own smallness in an empty universe, and lapses into nihilistic despair. The younger becomes hysterical in a way that convinces the other Brits that the doctor must have attacked her.
All works out, more or less, but the debris leaves everyone even more polarised and mutually alienated than before.
Perhaps it is inevitable that the racist British colonialists should seem like comic stereotypes today, but one of the first problems with Nancy Meckler's direction is that almost every character seems to have been conceived as a cartoon, and almost every actor given nothing but external signifying to work with.
The son is nothing more than a racist prig, the fiancee a 'New Woman', the mother preternaturally wise, the doctor a bit of a fool and an Uncle Tom.
So shallow and external are these characterisations, or so little have the actors been aided in deepening them, that when some of them have to change - the girl into an hysteric, the mother into bitter self-absorption, the doctor (in the final minutes of the play) into a politicised nationalist - the switches seem abrupt and arbitrary.
But deeper difficulties lie in the dramatic text. The novel's many-layered texture, treating the personal, historical, spiritual, cultural and political confrontations of East and West, seems to have been taken apart in Martin Sherman's adaptation, each layer being treated separately in turn, and thus not resonating against each other.
For example, to meet narrative needs, Sherman has turned the novel's relatively minor character of a music teacher (Antony Bunsee) into a Chorus figure.
But not only does his enlarged role seem incongruous, but the fact that he views everything from a Hindu perspective when most of the other Indians in the play are Muslims separates out the religious element rather than letting India's religious unknowability be part of the plot.
(Meanwhile, his constant over-clever paradoxes and gnomic comments, along the lines of 'God is present but He is not present', just get annoying after a while.)
The mother's spiritual crisis is allowed to come out of nowhere and then disappear as she is written out of the action, while the question of Indian independence is first addressed overtly in the final fifteen minutes. It is the fact that all these strands, and others, are interwoven in the novel that gives it its power; separating them out just makes each seem disappointingly thin.
It is not a failure. The story is told clearly; the issues are all raised intellectually if not evocatively, and some of the simple human moments, like the first meeting of the mother and doctor, or the girl's realisation she doesn't love her husband-to-be, work very nicely.
It is just that you are always aware that you are watching a plot summary of a novel, not a work successfully translated to the stage.
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Review of A Passage To India - Lyric Hammersmith Theatre 2004