A Passage to India | the Genesian Theatre

Image by Craig O’Regan

In an attempt to capture a poetic representation of 1920s English and Indian relations during British occupation, EM Forster’s classic novel and Martin Sherman’s stage adaptation place an exoticising lens on Indian people, place, and culture to explore power imbalances of race, class, and gender.

Adela Quested (Christiane New) has come to Chandrapore with her future mother-in-law Mrs Moore (Susan Jordan) to witness her future fiancé Ronny Heaslop (Simon Lee) at work as the local magistrate. While there, the two women face great boredom from the white British residents and wish to seek out the “real” India. Through a friendship with a young doctor Dr Aziz Ahmed (Atharv Kolhatkar), the women venture to a local landmark, the Marabar Caves, where both have startling and possibly supernatural encounters that entirely change their relationship with this country. Amongst riots, broken engagements, and a trial to ruin Dr Aziz’s life, the British colonisers are challenged by their complicity in the occupation and oppression of India despite their personal feelings and friendships.

Mark G Nagle’s direction of this script is ambitious with a large cast, many scenes, dips into unreality, and grand gestures of empire. There is a clear interest in atmospherics with the opening tableau featuring the British colonisers posed in formation under King George V’s portrait with a bustling local Indian market in the fore and “God Save the King” blaring overhead. Throughout the production, the action happened atop a large Union Jack spread across the stage floor as a constant reminder of Britain’s claim to this space. The lighting design by Sarah Gooda and Michael Schell was equally interested in creating atmosphere with red washes to capture the heat in the air and cool blues and purples for the mysterious caves and Miss Quested’s moments of hallucination. Costume designer Andrea Tan hammered home the British sense of superiority by cladding all the Brits in pristine white.

Sherman’s adaptation is long, the connotations of the original story are big, and the history of English occupation of India is heavy, making for a very demanding production. There were moments in this production that felt crowded or poorly translated to stage like the framing of the story with a local religious festival and Professor Narayan Godbole (Gaurav Kharbanda) as the audience’s spiritual guide or the presence of the supernatural or unknowable other in Miss Quested’s experience. In these moments the production seemed to stutter, either under the weight of too much contextual exposition or in the struggle to reconcile both Miss Quested’s fragile characterisation as exoticising coloniser and spooked waif.

That being said, there were some performances who dealt well with the pressure. Jordan’s performance of Mrs Moore betrayed a much more complicated position than chaperone and her friendship with Dr Aziz held so much promise, the great buoying force of the entire story. New and Lee were admirable as two sides to the same British coin with the right balance of self-interest and exasperation. But Kolhatkar’s performance as the central Dr Aziz was a stand-out for his commitment and incredibly believable conviction. In Dr Aziz’s story is a heartbreaking representation of the split between personal and systemic in unequal power structures and instances of oppression. Kolhatkar’s Dr Aziz was flawed and difficult but he offered a striking portrayal of how far someone can bend under the weight of colonialism, racism, and political pressure before breaking.

For the ensemble, the actors provided necessary social context for the encounters between the white British and local Indian residents. In particular, Mr Fielding (Miles Boland), Major Callender (Murray Fane), and Mrs Turton (Phoebe Kennedy) represented awfully frustrating and often racist British attitudes while Hamidullah (Vishal Shah), Rafi (Sankalp Bhatnagar), and Mohammed (Taufeeq Ahmed Sheikh) offered the humorous rebutting Indian perspective.

The impact of colonisation stretches across generations and the deadly consequences thrive in denial. At least as a first step, acknowledging harmful histories and narratives, dragging them forward to be reckoned with, can begin the hard work of deconstructing systems of unequal power and oppression. Like Dr Aziz, this painful, painstaking work will often mean prioritising justice over friendship, the political in front of the personal. Because if we don’t, what then?

A Passage to India is running at the Genesian Theatre from May 15th – June 19th

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