The Genesian takes a trip to India

"A Passage To India" now playing at The Genesian Theatre. Image: Genesian Theatre/Facebook.

Review: A Passage to India by the Genesian Theatre Company, Genesian Theatre, Sydney – Saturday, 15 May, 2021. Reviewed by arts and entertainment editor, Rita Bratovich.

★★★1/2

E.M. Forster’s acclaimed 1924 novel A Passage To India is one of enormous geographical and intellectual scope – just the type of challenge relished by the intrepid players of the Genesian Theatre Company.

In this production, incense burning at the foot of the stage and traditional instruments played by live musicians are two of the effective devices used to immediately set mood and place. Then, when the curtains part, we’re greeted with a set that is minimal (unusual for Genesian productions) yet clever and telling: a large British flag is spread over the floor like a rug; a globe of the world stands at centre stage with small territorial British flags protruding from it; a portrait of King George V hangs on the back wall. It’s a sensory conflict – incense and tabla evoking culture and tradition against the stark visual symbols of colonial rule. 

Clockwise from top left: Simon Lee, Christiane New, Susan Jordan, Sankalp Bhatnagar. Image: Craig O’Regan/supplied.

Director Mark G. Nagle, along with assistant director Emma Whitehead and set designer Andrea Tan, recognising the limitations of the stage in depicting the novel’s sprawling landscapes, have employed devices such as lighting, sound and tokens to instead stimulate imagination. 

Martin Sherman’s astute adaptation proves that the real story resides in the characters and the political atmosphere around the events. 

Mrs Moore (Susan Jordan) is a middle-aged, wealthy English woman who visits her son Ronny (Simon Lee), the local magistrate in Chandrapore, India. Mrs Moore is accompanied by Miss Adela Quested (Christiane New) who is engaged to Ronny. By chance, Mrs Moore meets an Indian, Dr Aziz (Atharv Kolhatkar) in a mosque and they strike up an unlikely friendship. 

Miles Boland (left) and Gaurav Kharbanda. Image: Craig O’Regan/supplied.

Over a series of social events,  Adela and Mrs Moore become acquainted with Mr Cyril Fielding (Miles Boland), the principal of a government run college for Indians, and Prof. Narayan Godbole (Gaurav Kharbanda). Dr Aziz later also meets Fielding and they become friends. 

Dr Aziz and a guide take Mrs Moore and Miss Quested on a trip to the famous (or infamous) Marabar Caves. Mrs Moore becomes claustrophobic and declines to explore the caves so Dr Aziz, the guide and Miss Quested go on without her. 

A short time later, Miss Quested runs from the caves in panic. She believes someone may have attempted to assault her and she later accuses Dr Aziz. 

This incident is the pivotal moment of the play. From here, deep-seated racism, snobbery, perceptions of social order and emotional truths are laid bare. What is sobering to note is how pertinent so much of the commentary still is today. Indeed, there are many lines spoken that evince a murmur of appreciation for their irony from the audience. 

The cast is all very strong, with Susan Jordan empathetic as Mrs Moore, Gaurav Kharbanda engaging as Prof. Godbole, Atharv Kolhatkar earnest and intense as Dr Aziz. 

Susan Jordan (back), Christiane New, Atharv Kolhatkar. Image: Craig O’Regan/supplied.

Several actors play multiple roles as well as playing instruments on stage. 

While there’s gravity in the themes, the dialogue contains Forster’s trademark dry humour and Sherman has preserved the author’s gift for storytelling. 

Take the journey – it’s a worthwhile adventure. 

The Genesian Theatre Company’s production of A Passage to India plays the Genesian Theatre, 420 Kent Street, Sydney until Saturday, June 19. Tickets ($30-$35 plus nominal booking fee) and further info available from www.genesiantheatre.com.au.