Sophie Arthur

‘A Passage to India’, After-Show Discussion

Tell me a little bit about the process in the rehearsal room. Was there a script to work from or did you work from the novel? How did you go about it?

It’s a script that’s existed for a while, Simon Dormandy, who adapted the novel, did so a couple of years ago, so we were presented with a script that hasn’t really changed much over the process of its performances. We had 2 directors and Simon worked from the text more and Sebastian worked on the physical life of the show, but they dovetailed nicely and so our work was not so much about creating the text but bringing it to life. We could work in the comfort of knowing it wasn’t going to change that much.

How did those who came from the Simple 8 company approach the text and could you tell us a bit more about the company?

We are a theatre company that works in “poor theatre”, which essentially means using people and not much else, keeping things minimal. We tend to research and plan our shows for quite a while before we bring them to rehearsal. In this show, although we had a script basically brought to us ready, all the physical stuff that the audience sees on the stage happens in workshop, prior to rehearsal. We really thought about how we might represent the caves, how we might represent the train and the elephant. Some of that happened in the rehearsal room, but some of it happened quite a few years ago, they’ve been extensively researched and developed, which gives the ensemble much more of a sense of ownership over the show, which I hope comes across in the show’s energy.

What questions kept reoccurring in your rehearsal room? And perhaps then a secondary question of why this, why now?

‘When’s tea break?’ That was quite a common one!

Adapting a novel, there’s an authorial voice in a novel, who largely guides you through what you’re thinking about when you’re in a scene or a chapter. The scene’s themselves, some of them have a drama to them and especially in the second half, there’s all sorts of conflict, which creates the drama and that’s self-explanatory, but a lot of the scenes don’t have this necessarily like the tea party, the club, when all the characters are introducing themselves to each other and even the scene around the caves, the drama isn’t very obvious and that was something that I kept thinking about in rehearsal.

To go on to your secondary question, the underlying theme of the novel is connection, over culture, over religion, over nation, all those things that divide us and instead Forster focuses on what connects us to each other and so speaking personally, I was always trying to go back to that idea in all the scenes ad suddenly there is a drama that you can invest in and play with as a character. That’s really Forster’s main theme and the theme of this novel. Obviously, there’s a cultural grounding in India specifically [in this novel], but that is the heart of it all and once you’ve latched on to that in every scene, then that seemed to drive the conflict.

Who comes up with the use of sounds which create the atmosphere? The scenery and sounds are very simple concepts, but does that take a lot of rehearsing?

It’s a very collaborative project, but at the end of the day we have the director’s side of it to call the shots, but within that it’s wanting to take and use and adapt ideas from everybody. I think it’s quite important, especially in a show that’s this physical, that you do then have an outside eye, that can take control of it and mould and shape it, because none of us, being in it, can really see what the overall effect is going to be.

There’s also our amazing composer and that creates such atmosphere. In some ways the music is the heartbeat of the show. We had him in rehearsals with us all the time, which was an absolute joy! Even our warm ups were underscored! We could have that constant reminder of music and meaning, a sense of where we were.

How true was the play to the actual novel?

The problem with adapting a novel is, that if you did adapt the whole novel, you’d be here for a very long time. So, I think what we’ve done is take out the bare bones and the spine of the story and the most dramatic moments within that story. But none of the story is embellished or changed. The final third, however, doesn’t appear in any of the film adaptations and think that’s why we’ve had quite a few people saying, ‘I don’t quite remember that bit’, and they’re probably remembering the film, rather than the novel. It’s never been tackled on stage either until now, because it was always seen as a passage that couldn’t be dramatised, but a lot of people say that’s their favourite bit. The Hindu world is a world of chaos and emotion and that, in contrast with the rest of the story, is quite a bizarre jump that Forster makes and that’s why people have shied away from it in the past and when you’re reading the novel, the bit where you don’t understand what’s going on!

Do you ever get immersed in what’s happening for the character’s or do you simply think, ‘my next line is…’?

You do get immersed, definitely. There are moments, especially in the last section of the play when you’re watching from the side where you get really emotional watching it because you’re invested in it. It’s also a very technical piece for an actor to do with incorporating the music and the movement so your technical brain is still active and knows exactly what to do and when.

The text is so rich as well that we notice different things. Today, for example, I suddenly thought in the scene where Mrs Moore has her nervous breakdown, that Ronny was a lot more responsible and a light was shone on that more for me today, so sometimes you see different facets and angles on a scene that you may not have seen before. I suddenly realised what he represented in that moment on the stage and what she’d be fighting against, if she supported Aziz. Sometimes things come out more strongly than on other days.

How does the history of the world and politics since this was written impact on the performance? Or do you just take it as it was presented at that time, from that time period?

The divisions in the play are the divisions now. I think we’re presenting it in 1910, which is when we’ve set it, when Simon (the adapter) believes it was set. But, I personally feel that everything we’re doing is almost more relevant now, given that we’ve had 100 years of history and we haven’t really changed that much. Obviously, there’s no empire anymore, but it hasn’t made that much difference it would seem. There’s still that separation feeling [from other countries], but also that shared emotion. That is still there.

You could argue that you could take the colonialism aside and take the root of it of two men, or women, from different cultures, different religions, different experiences and actually they’re still friends. The root of the whole book is about individuals and society. The chorus and the story surrounds the idea that there will be a time when we can be equal ‘just not yet’ but we just have to be patient. It’s not never, it’s just not yet. Even though politics and culture can keep us apart, Forster also wrote ‘Only Connect’ and I think humans can do that beyond politics, beyond culture and beyond all the things we are seeing in the world at the moment that might drive us apart. It’s optimistic as well.

Is it now? Have we reached that point or not?

I’d love to say we have, but I’m not sure. In a way I think it’s about connecting, but if we really think about what connecting means, I think it means, listening, really. If you listen to someone, Aziz talks about the secret understanding of the heart, you listen to someone’s heart. Open up to people, I don’t know if I’m a pessimist or not, but I don’t see that happening very much, but I often, always, hope for it. To understand each other, you’ve really got to listen to each other.

I hope the message of the play when we say, ‘not now, not yet’, is that it is now, and it is up to us to make it ‘now’. Only we can change what’s out there. The thing Aziz talks about is ‘kindness, and more kindness, and ever after, kindness’.

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