REVIEW: E M Forster's rich story let down by sparse staging in Northampton show

Edward Killingback as Ronny and Phoebe Pryce as Adela Picture: Idil Sukan
Edward Killingback as Ronny and Phoebe Pryce as Adela Picture: Idil Sukan

Lily Canter reviews A Passage to India at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton

Not since my A-level coursework have I dared venture into the world of E M Forster again but the latest adaptation of his novel A Passage to India at Royal & Derngate piqued my attention.

The Made in Northampton co-production with ensemble company Simple8 takes the audience on an absurd and mystical journey to the colonial world of northern India prior to World War One.

Here two female protagonists, a forthright Mrs Moore and her desperately curious prospective daughter-in-law Adela, attempt to embrace the 'real' India amidst sneering disapproval from the dominant British men that surround them.

Their attempts to be kind and merciful to the occupied Indians are met with contempt from all but Fielding, a British school inspector who shares a deep friendship with native doctor Aziz.

The optimistic unity of east and west which envelopes the play's first act is shattered when an assault occurs at the mysterious Marabar Caves.

What follows is a rapid unravelling of sanity, companionship and faith as Forster questions whether it is ever possible to overcome conflicting cultures and beliefs.

The essence of Forster's provocative novel remains relevant a hundred years on. But for me, it is the enticing caves with their terrifying echo that remain the timeless theme of this adaptation by Simon Dormandy.

No matter what is uttered inside them, the walls always return the same hollow sound - one that epitomises the meaningless of existence.

This bold production attempts to capture the complex philosophical ruminations of Forster's literary novel but does so with mixed success.

The deliberately minimal set with its drapes and boxes certainly focuses your eye on the characters but in doing so fails to capture the colour and vibrancy of the world Mrs Moore and Adela step into.

The use of bamboo sticks (possibly repurposed from the recent Jungle Book production) and numerous wooden boxes to create vehicles, caves and court rooms feels a little too frugal for such an opulent setting.

The original text is laden with themes of politics, religion and sexual repression and these don't all translate coherently to the stage especially for audience members unfamiliar with the novel.

The impressive cast, in particular Asif Khan as the witty yet subservient Aziz, try their upmost to elicit empathy but they are stifled by the density of the source material.

And by paring down the props and staging an opportunity has been lost to visually represent these multiple thematic layers.

This is a brave adaptation, competently produced which gained a warm reception from the packed audience but it will not be everyone's cup of Indian tea.