Lyric Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 17 September, 2004

E.M. Forster is a surprisingly slippery novelist, his books containing at once both more and less than meets the eye. His characters plainly possess deep inner lives, though largely only hinted at in the text; he can tackle major social or political issues, but relies for his power on a genteel English understatement. Similarly with the Shared Experience company's production of Martin Sherman's stage adaptation of Forster's A Passage To India, completely recast from its 2003 premiere and now playing at the Lyric Hammersmith. It makes its political, emotional and spiritual points, and Nancy Meckler's staging is (if this doesn't seem an oxymoron) scrupulously inventive... yet, writing this review less than 48 hours after seeing the show, I find that rather than coming into focus as a whole, its various elements have dissipated further.

This is not to say that it's anything like as wispy and Merchant-Ivory pointless as David Lean's film version. Where Lean relied on visual exotica, Sherman and Meckler are assiduous in foregrounding content rather than style: so much so that there seems to me to be rather less than usual of Shared Experience's trademark physical-visual interpretative work, perhaps in a conscious decision to prevent the exotic from taking over.

The various strands of character and narrative are efficiently delivered. Fenella Woolgar sustains her skill at playing Englishwomen of a certain class in her portrayal of Adela Quested's slightly naïve, slightly repressed yearning for "the real India", leading to her hysterical episode in the Marabar Caves. Alex Caan's Dr Aziz is at first eager to be friendly towards various Britons, but sours into nationalistic bitterness when he is mistakenly accused of "insulting" Miss Quested in the caves. Susan Tracy is compelling as Mrs Moore, Adela's elderly companion whose inward experience on the same trip leads her to withdraw dismissively from life (ultimately even in the literal sense); William Osborne plays schoolmaster Fielding as an honest broker both socially and politically; Antony Bunsee's Professor Godbole acts as a narrator simultaneously serene, authoritative and joyous.

We emerge after two and three-quarter hours with a sense of the patronising oppression of the Raj, and of the complications of motive and feasibility in relationships between parties on various footings; we also get a sense of Forster's patient, penetrating eye. What we remain unsure about is, 80 years after the novel's publication, how potently it can communicate with us.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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