Tre Ventour reviews A Passage To India, the latest from the Made In Northampton brand at Royal & Derngate…
Based on the novel by E. M. Forster, A Passage to India revolves around the changing dynamics between the British colonials and the natives between 1910 and 1912. When an expedition to explore some caves ends in English tourist Adela Quested (Phoebe Pryce) accusing Dr. Aziz Ahmed (Asif Khan) of rape, the event ushers in a major court case, one that reinforces the tensions between the British Empire and the growing movement towards Indian independence.
Made as a co-production between Simple8 Theatre Company and Northampton’s Royal & Derngate, A Passage to India is a great watch. Having previously watched the film starring Judy Davis (Feud) and Nigel Havers (Coronation Street), I knew the gist of the story before going in. However, in order to understand this play I truly believe one needs some knowledge about the British Empire and what Britain did to so many nations, including: America, parts of Africa, The West Indies, Australia, Afghanistan, Ireland and more.
Passage is a critique of race and class (they are interchangeable), more so colonialism and the power structures that the British used to rule the world. Having started term two in my second year on BA Creative Writing, it’s virtually impossible for me to watch anything and just enjoy it. Hence, I was thinking about postcolonial theorists like Franz Fanon and Edward Said throughout A Passage to India in regards to their discussions on race in Asia and other former-colonies.
Passage is a story we’ve seen told countless times. Whether it’s dressed up in the southern twang of Alabama in To Kill a Mockingbird or more small-town a cases with Jimmy Stewart in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, this adaptation of the Forster novel is one more example of a case that can make or break communities. This co-production could not have been timelier. With the events in Hollywood involving Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and company, as well as the #MeToo movement, rape culture is rampant. There’s no doubting that, but Passage asks the question: “what do we do if the victim cries wolf?” When you have people like Quested lying, it hurts the chances of people who were actually raped getting the justice they deserve.
Seeing the play in Northampton the other night, it’s as much an excellent narrative as the film, another David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai) great. The sets and costumes were very well put-together, showing a creative wildfire in the cultural quarter of Northampton that burns brighter with each of my visits. I felt like I was in India watching this. I should know what that’s like since I’ve been there myself. When the profiles dipped onto the stage, the light takes on the exquisiteness of Technicolor.
The dialogue, performances and direction saw a stark divide in ideology, as our characters took tea in polite society and spat upon those that were different. No this isn’t the aftermath of Brexit or Trump’s America; this is British India where bureaucracy ruled, women traded gossip, men made deals and narratives spin their own form of truths. Oh, I wonder where we’ve seen this before.
This play is not only good for its performances and mis-en-scene, but for its clear and concise message about racism as well. It’s a rare occasion when a play, adaption or not, can talk about the wrongs of Britain’s not so distant history without seeming preachy. Adapted and co-directed by Simon Dormandy and co-directed by Sebastian Armesto, A Passage to India is an achievement for sure.
It is easily the best thing I’ve watched at the Royal & Derngate since Death of a Salesman. And I believe this is a story that is timeless as there will never be a time where humanity won’t use labels. If the Royal &Derngate told more stories of this calibre, (ones that speak to all members of society like Jungle Book) I believe that the Royal auditorium would host more than just the white middle class.
Nonetheless, this production is something to be proud of, showing that regional venues like Northampton still have bite and can still compete with the likes of the National Theatre in London, producing peppery plays like A Passage to India, a story set in the colonies that is as important today as its original release in 1924.
Read Steve Scoles’ review of A Passage to India here