Review by Isabel Zakharova
Opening to a full house at the Genesian Theatre, E.M Forster’s A Passage to India takes audiences on an entertaining, philosophical and colour-filled journey through 1920s colonial India. From the very moment the curtains open, a flurry of activity, music and energy fill the stage, immediately grabbing our attention and creating a strong sense of place.
Directed by Mark G. Nagle (A Room With A View, Beautiful Thing) and adapted for the stage by Martin Sherman (Bent, The Boy From Oz), A Passage to India examines the tensions, cultural faux pas and volatile friendships between British and Indian people during this period. Adela Quested (Christiane New) is a young British woman, newly arrived in India. Unlike many of her compatriots – who exhibit arrogant, snobby attitudes and speak with unbridled racism – Adela regards her surroundings with curiosity and awe. In fact, her greatest desire is to see the ‘real India’.
To escape her restlessness, Adela accepts an invitation from the charming Dr Aziz (Atharv Kolhatkar) to take an expedition to the mysterious Marabar Caves – a place which is just as unfamiliar to the locals as it is to the foreigners. While inside these pitch-black hollows, Adela has a terrifying encounter, which she describes as an attempted assault by Dr Aziz. This prompts a chain reaction of chaotic events, ultimately resulting in the quick deterioration of local British-Indian relations.
Several questions are raised: what happened at the Marabar Caves? Did Dr Aziz really attack Adela? Interestingly, and frustratingly, it seems that each ensuing scene leaves the audience somewhat unsatisfied, with more questions than answers. A range of different themes come into play, from the nature of good and evil to the dwindling trust in religion. While I did find that some of the philosophical musings perhaps stretched on for too long, I remained engaged by narrator Professor Godbole’s (Gaurav Kharbanda) amusing approach to storytelling. At times, he posed questions directly to the audience, prompting enthusiastic responses.
One of the biggest highlights of this production was the character of Dr Aziz, effortlessly portrayed by Atharv Kolhatkar. The combination of excellent physicality, clever timing and humorous facial expressions created a character who immediately enlivened the stage. Kolhatkar’s range as an actor especially shines as we witness the fascinating transformation which Dr Aziz undergoes over the course of the play. He is introduced to us as an animated individual who is excited at the prospect of British-Indian friendship, but ultimately becomes jaded and distrustful.
The set (Mark G. Nagle) and costume design (Andrea Tan) absolutely bear mentioning. It was only after the play had concluded, that I realised that there were very few set pieces that remained on stage. Instead, actors seamlessly brought props on and off the stage, each piece serving multiple purposes to tell the story. Wooden ladders were manoeuvred to create a moving train, while an upturned stool became the steering wheel of a car. In one particularly beautiful moment, several actors crouched under a large, colourful piece of material to create the shape of an elephant. It was very refreshing to see that each item served a functional purpose, rather than simply decorate the stage.
Another distinctive feature of this production was its multi-sensory nature. In addition to vibrant visuals and traditional Indian composition, A Passage to India engages the audience’s sense of smell. With incense sticks burning throughout the performance and cigarette smoke floating down from the stage, the play was a uniquely immersive experience.
A Passage to India certainly provides an intriguing portrait of 1920s India and the cultural divides which dominated this era. However, it is important to remember that this play was written from a colonial British perspective, and does not delve into some of the more violent aspects of colonial rule. Interesting post-play conversations are sure to be had, but audiences must be prepared to be left with more questions than answers!
Image Credit: Craig O'Regan