The last time someone adapted E M Forster's novel A Passage to India – David Lean, in 1984 – it was so clearly being told from a white British point of view that even the Hindu Professor Godbole was played by Alec Guinness in brown make-up. But we've moved on a bit since then. So why have Shared Experience decided to do a stage version of this hoary old story about a young Englishwoman getting into trouble in the heat of the tropical sun? Is this a case of the poor old theatre lagging behind as usual?
Apparently not. Shared Experience is best known for adapting 19th-century classics like Jane Eyre and The Mill on the Floss, but their radical approach has consistently released these stories from the nostalgic corsetry of costume drama. In Lean's version, A Passage to India is about attractive, innocent Adela Quested, who accuses a local Muslim doctor, Aziz, of raping her in a cave, culminating in a trial that stirs up a hornet's nest of racial tension. But adapting the book for Shared Experience, playwright Martin Sherman has discovered a more complex story – and a completely different central character.
"Godbole says that one thing is true, and the opposite is also true – and this is the core of what I believe, in life and as a writer," says Sherman. "I identified with his sensibility." Professor Godbole is a marginal figure in the Adela case, but here, through narration, song and parable, he becomes our guide. The basic plot stays, but as director Nancy Meckler points out, Forster's book "is not a thriller. It reduces the story to focus purely on what happens in the Marabar Caves. The greatest achievement of Martin's adaptation is that it's not just about getting to the end, but about the repercussions of the case." Sherman keeps Godbole's philosophical musings – on the interdependence of apparent opposites, on his god's love of all things – which raise the hope of British-Indian reconciliation after the traumas of the trial. But he also preserves Forster's ending, which makes clear that, as Meckler puts it, "the Indians and the British can't be friends while one group are rulers."
It's hard to believe this is only 18 years after David Lean declared his intention to improve on the novel, saying: "Forster was a bit anti-English, anti-Raj... I'm not so much." Coming in the wake of the much-acclaimed Gandhi and The Jewel in the Crown, Lean's film seemed to confirm that the Raj was all the rage. But amid the acclaim, an angry Salman Rushdie, fresh from his rather more Indian-orientated take on India's history, Midnight's Children, could be heard lambasting Lean for his Imperial nostalgia. So it will be revealing to compare Shared Experience's new Passage to India with the RSC's forthcoming version of Rushdie's own novel.
Midnight's Children will be staged in January – by Tim Supple, one of Nancy Meckler's few equals in the art of the adaptation. In some ways, Rushdie's story picks up where Forster's leaves off. Midnight's Children starts in 1915, just after the era of A Passage to India. And at the end of Forster's book, Aziz is waiting for Indian Independence – the hopeful moment at the heart of Rushdie's pessimistic story. But how is Supple planning to put the 70-year sweep of Midnight's Children onstage? It turns out this production also has a cinematic antecedent. In 1997, Rushdie wrote a screenplay of his book. It was never filmed, but he, Supple and dramaturg Simon Reade have used this as a basis for the stage version. They even plan, following the screenplay, to use newsreel archive of historical events which will be played out on a cinema screen, to create, as Supple puts it, "a literal backdrop of history" to the life of Saleem Sinai, Rushdie's frantic protagonist.
However, Supple has been as determined as Meckler and Sherman to create a play, rather than a homage to a book (or a filmscript). A single actor will play each character throughout, even those who go from childhood to dotage. Supple points out that one of the beauties of theatre is that you can not only "hop from place to place" – just like film – "you can do two things at the same time, be in two times or places, at once." This may come in handy if the play is to keep pace with Saleem's hectic dash back and forth throughout his story, constantly connecting disparate places and distant moments. Supple wants his whole production to "be Saleemed – to find Saleem's voice," so that the book's literary playfulness can be reinvented as theatre.
E M Forster once famously declared that if you do nothing else in life, you should "only connect." Nancy Meckler suggests that staging his novel will make some resonant connections: "it's exciting to be informing people about how the past has repercussions on the present, opening people up to why Britain has the relationship it has with India by telling a human story." Likewise, Tim Supple says he was first drawn to Rushdie's work by its multiplicity – its "breathtaking conflagration of the popular, vulgar, playful with the literary, philosophical, magical," the way that, in his writing, "East meets West, Hollywood meets Bollywood, Conrad meets the Mahabharata." The struggle both directors find in these stories – to connect East and West, and past and present – could hardly be more timely.
'A Passage to India': Richmond Theatre (020 8940 0088), Thursday to Saturday, then touring; 'Midnight's Children': Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891), 18 January to 23 February 2003
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