Sometimes theatre can be life-changing. Not often, these days, it's true. But when it arrives, don't miss it. All this year and for some years past, LIFT - London's International Festival of Theatre - have been asking, what happens when the curtain comes down? What is left behind?
In the case of Nancy Meckler's wonderful Shared Experience (with Nottingham Playhouse) revival of E M Forster's 1920's meditation on the beginning of the dying embers of the British Raj, it sends you away marvelling at the production's ability to draw us into its space, determined to go back and read the book but, and here's the really remarkable thing, anxious to learn more about the whole crux of this passage: the interpretation of the unknowlable in Hinduism.
Meckler's production ends on both high and low notes: the narrator and mysterious Dr Godbole (Antony Bunsee), ecstatic, at the climax of his Hindu festival of Krishna's rebirth; Dr Aziz (Alex Caan), the young man at the centre of a controversial trial, uttering both veiled political threat and personal tragic loss in his `no, not yet,' in answer to the unconventional Englishman and his former friend, Fielding (William Osborne)'s imploring, `but why can't we be friends?' Such a sigh went up from the Lyric's audience at this moment it was as if the political and the personal, Empire lost, Independence gained, personal friendship rejected were all conjoined in that collective exhalation.
But then, that's the beauty of this production, previously seen last year at Riverside, now recast and touring - its pacing and rhythm, as seductive as a balmy Indian night, as penetrating and unsettling as a mystical revelation.
Dr Aziz's `passage' is a truly life-changing one - from innocent, Raj acolyte to putative nationalist and freedom fighter - as it is, too for Mrs Moore (Susan Tracy) and her daughter Adela (Fenella Woolgar) arriving in India for a prospective marriage with Mrs Moore's uptight, English colonial magistrate, Ronny (a perfectly cast Simon Scardifield). Mrs Moore, initially warm, generous, turns recluse, spiritually despairing, finds death; Adela learns about sex, sensuality and the pain of truth.
On a simple stage bare save for a flexible, traversing bench and onstage musicians, Meckler, Shared Experience's creative team and adapter Martin Sherman, delicately teasing out the unspoken, homoerotic implications of Fielding and Aziz's relationship bring all of this - the charged emotions, the sexual, cultural, spiritual exchanges, lessons and awakenings - into luminous, shimmering being. More than just, perhaps now, a dated play about racism, this is a play about now. Timeless. Don't miss it. Catch it in Cork, Nottingham, Liverpool, Poole and Salford.
- Carole Woddis
Note: The following review dates from October 2002 and an earlier stop on this production's UK tour, the cast has now changed, for updated casting see listings.
EM Forster's award-winning 1924 novel won new audiences 60 years later, thanks to David Lean's 1984 Oscar-nominated film starring Ben Kingsley. Now the masters of page-to-stage adaptation, Shared Experience, work their theatrical magic on this epic tale of India during the British Raj to create something as rich and many-faceted as the Koh-i-Noor diamond.
Playwright Martin Sherman has collaborated with director Nancy Meckler before - notably on Rose, with Olympia Dukakis. The adaptation he has fashioned here with the company is so sure and successful, that it's as if he's knocked heads together with Forster himself. Yet he's come up with a new work both faithful to the old and urgently topical.
From the moment you enter the auditorium, you feel you're sharing the experience that Adela Quested and Mrs Moore, the two Englishwomen at the heart of the story crave in their search for 'the real India'. Musicians Chandru and Sirishkumar - seated on Niki Turner's simple raised platform with its beaten copper background ready to transport us around India - instantly conjure the atmosphere of the sub-continent.
The story that unfolds is one of tension. The British, the 'Anglo-Indians', treat the natives of India with contempt born of distrust and unease, and their feelings are returned by Muslim and Hindu alike. The cavalier intolerance of the buttoned-up British is almost laughably shocking to a contemporary audience, but the religious tension makes Forster seem all too prescient.
The whole cast transform themselves from Indians to Anglo-Indians in an instant as required. Wearing dazzling white for both communities, decorated when appropriate with bright accessories, this multicultural company highlights the reality that human nature makes us all equal.
Sherman explains that he found his way into the story through a paragraph telling the tale of a Hindu hero who continues to fight to release prisoners from jail even after he's beheaded. The festival in his honour is a motif that allows Aaron Neil's centred Hindu schoolmaster Godbole, acting as narrator, to take us to the spiritual heart of the tale and guide us expertly through the complicated narrative.
Forster famously wrote 'only connect' and against this backdrop the almost disastrous efforts of Adela (Penny Layden) and Mrs Moore (Susan Engel), the schoolteacher Fielding (Ian Gelder) and the fiery Dr Aziz Paul Bazeley to build a bridge have gripping poignancy. This quartet lead one of the best ensembles I've seen for years.