SULTRY HEAT AND SEXUAL DREAD…
Our age is beginning, once more, to appreciate E.M.Forster properly: the recent TV Howards’s End caught his wit as well as the social indignation and melancholy, and allowed something of the philosophical-mystical oddity of the man and his dream of “only connect”. This adaptation by Simon Dormandy – who co-directs with Sebastian Armesto – takes his strange, angry, yearningly reconciliatory story about the Raj in its pomp in 1910, with white colonialists and Indians woefully disconnected, and treats it with intelligent care and interesting theatrics.
I remembered the book mostly for the central event – English Adela wrongly accusing Dr Aziz of molesting her in the Marabar caves, rousing both communities to fury and only recanting at the trial. So I expected the satirical disgust at Anglo-Indian prejudice and the weird sexual dread which – as I remember from a few childhood years in apartheid South Africa – fuels a lot of racism. We get that: the prim policeman McBride averring that “The darker races are physically attracted to the lighter. It’s a scientific fact”. We get the harrumphing voices at the Club, Mrs Callendar saying “Call in the army! Flog the bastards!”, and the stiff fretful young magistrate realizing that Adela’s passion for “the real India” would not be suitable in his future memsahib. We get, also a copybook example of prosecutorial indignation trying to shore up a recovered false memory of abuse. Very topical.
But I had somehow forgotten, and since have re-read, the religious, mystical strangeness of the book. This is what Dormandy and Armesto arrestingly express by having the ensemble cast open the play by chorally quoting Walt Whitman’s poem of the same title , about “God’s purpose” being to bring all races together. Old Mrs Moore, philosophically aged, first meets Aziz in a mosque, sharing his sense of God. Yet near her end – Liz Crowther quite terrifyingly expressing this – the old woman loses God and her only-connecting beliefs , in a breakdown triggered by the terrifying blank inexpressive “Boom!” echo in the caves, which also disastrously throw Adela into hallucinating panic.
So the play, like the book, expresses this deep ancient dread of emptiness, meaninglesness: a spiteful pointless universe only alleviated by the wacky irrationality of the final Hindu ceremonies of Krishna’s birth. This production expresses it by creating, alongside the prosaic club and court and tea-party scenes, a sense of otherness: giving that “boom!” sound with voices and breaking into moments of ritual movement, a dim-lit ensemble creating the cave-doors and boats and river with heavy staves. Strong choreography and Kuljit Bhamra’s moody score (the live music onstage was from Meera Raja on press night) make it work. Phoebe Pryce gives us a good Adela in her earnest tripperish naiveté and rising, sexually charged distress: Asif Khan is a fascinating Aziz, initially burbling in cartoonish, nervous-to-please ‘babu’ style, his Muslim purity irritated by “Hindus, so sloppy!”, but after the accusation growing in rage, rejecting white friendship from Richard Goulding’s liberal Fielding, then reaching final reconciliation only in the dreamlike scenes which end it.
I left more moved than I expected, reflecting on Forster’s redemptive dream and how far we have and haven’t come. But also noting how the heat and feverish colour of India can turn some from the white race to mysticism, some to nervous arrogant pomposity, some to terrified sexual dread. All of which still happen..
box office 01604 624811. to 20 Jan
touring Salisbury , Bristol, Liverpool, Bromley
Reaches Park Theatre London, 20 Feb.