You might expect a stage adaptation of E. M Forster's classic Novel 'A Passage to India' to be drenched in hot sun and vibrant colour. But Simple 8's production, in the main stage at Park Theatre, has opted for a large ensemble cast working in a largely empty space. The pressure is on the performers, who have to step in and out of naturalistic scenes, narrate their own story and bring India to life with ensemble movement and vocal textures.

Set in India before the First World War, 'A Passage to India' is a damning portrayal of individual and group behaviour under British colonial rule. 'One cannot be friends with the English' says Mahmoud Ali to his great friend, Aziz. Yet academics, Fielding and Aziz are instantly drawn to each other despite their context. Meanwhile Adela and Mrs Moore, who have just arrived from England are themselves appalled to see the way their countrymen behave. Be-friending Aziz, they head off to the Marabar caves, famed for a disturbing echo that reduces everything to the same meaningless sound. Deep in the caves, Mrs Moore and Adela experience terror beyond rational explanation and Aziz is accused of a terrible crime…

Adapting Forster's lyrical prose for the stage was never going to be easy and given the challenge, the techniques employed sometimes feel a little tired. The entire ensemble open the play by whispering a slightly turgid section of a Forster poem, gradually increasing in volume and banging their bamboo sticks together in rhythm. In a huge space, this might have been dramatic - but here and elsewhere in the production, it felt more like an exercise in building tension. Original music (drums and cello) from Kuljit Bhamra add to the ominous warning tones whenever the caves are mentioned and ultimately the pay off does come at the dramatic heart of the story, when Mrs Moore and Adela lose themselves in the Marabar Caves. As darkness descends, the bamboo sticks and encroaching ensemble felt genuinely threatening and oppressive.

Richard Goulding is warm and convincing as Fielding. He has a natural affinity with the language of the period that brings his character sharply into focus. Other performances felt a little mannered as if sign-posted meaningful moments, and losing the lightness of touch required of Forster's writing. The minimalist set design, intended to focus the audience on relationships actually left the ensemble working so hard to build pictures that subtlety was sometimes sacrificed.

That said, director's Sebatsian Armesto and Simon Dormandy pull it out of the bag in the final scene when Aziz and Fielding riding their ensemble horses ask, 'Can we be friends?' and the earth replies, 'No, not yet'. It is a moving moment when I suspect the vast majority of the Park theatre audience are left thinking; our world is far from perfect but here, now we can at least be friends.
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