The English unbuttoned

Shared Experience gets physical for its adaption of Forster's<i> A Passage to India</i>
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The Independent Culture

Martin Sherman's adaptation of EM Forster's A Passage to India, about relations between the English colonial overlords and the native population of India, is revived by the Shared Experience company with the Nottingham Playhouse. Nancy Meckler directs.

Martin Sherman's adaptation of EM Forster's A Passage to India, about relations between the English colonial overlords and the native population of India, is revived by the Shared Experience company with the Nottingham Playhouse. Nancy Meckler directs.

The touring company has been bringing its physical style of theatre and its strength in adaptations to audiences for a quarter of a century. Meckler became the artistic director in 1988, having become the first woman to direct at the National Theatre (a production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virgin-ia Woolf) in 1981. She has also directed many productions at the Hampstead Theatre and Leicester Haymarket.

Since Meckler's arrival at Shared Experience, landmarks for the company have included her first production of a literary adaptation - the award-winning Anna Karenina (1992). It toured the UK and travelled to Malaysia, Prague, Sicily and Finland. She co-directed Mill on the Floss and War and Peace for the National, with Polly Teale. "Not only is the story important, and the words, but the magic in our productions is created, often, by the actors and their movements rather than by amazing backdrops," Meckler says. "The actors are often in a very bare, evocative space."

In this show the entire set - floors and walls - is made of thin sheets of scratched, etched brass, giving an antique feel reminiscent of crumbling buildings. It's useful for one character, Adela Quested, who flees the Marabar caves after (possibly) being molested by the charming Dr Aziz; she "runs" up and over the brass wall. "There are foot holes," Meckler explains. Other tricks in Shared Experience's trademark style include the wall turning into a glowing orange sunset. "It's all only an impression. The audience can fill in a lot of the details with their own imagination."

At one point, an elephant is needed. "The actors arrange themselves very quickly and 'become' the elephant - with Adela and her mother-in-law to be, Mrs Moore, sitting on top," Meckler says. "An actor's scarf becomes the elephant's trunk."

A character's thoughts can also be physicalised. "When Adela goes into the cave, there is this question - was she molested or not?" Meckler says. "We decided that she meets her deepest hidden desire. As she walks into the cave, made of a wall of people, she starts to imagine being molested. She starts to experience it in her own body, and the walls of that cave appear to become part of that fantasy. We are bringing alive what is going on in her mind."

Meckler says that at first she wasn't keen on literary adaptations. "I didn't want to put on a book, I wanted to do pure theatre," she says. "When I did Anna Karenina, I said, 'We want to take this material and be inspired by it,' and be ruthless with it to make it into a play. It went better than I could ever have imagined."

'A Passage to India' is at Bristol Old Vic (till September 11); Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (14-25 Sep); then touring. ( www.sharedexperience.org.uk)

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