Sydney’s Genesian Theatre Company opens, ‘A Passage to India’…

By Taufeeq Ahmed Sheikh

Directed by Mark Nagle, ‘A Passage to India’ gives the audience an insight of the 1920 era of British Raj and prevailing attitudes in India, while also touching on the intertwined socio economic behaviours amongst the then pluralistic Indians.

Premiering in Sydney, by Genesian Theatre Company (GTC), ‘A Passage to India’ opens on May 15, 2021 until June 19. Located at 420 Kent Street next to Sydney Town Hall, GTC will stage this classic 1924 novel of well-known English writer E.M. Forster, adapted for a play by Martin Sherman in 2002. Regarded amongst the top 100 literary works of the 20th Century it was also made into a movie with the same name back in 1984 directed by David Lean.

Unlike the movie though, director Mark Nagle has given more credit to the Indian elements and stories than the film could achieve. He has also ensured that all the Indian cast is played by Indian actors making it a unique and one of a kind play in the 75 years long history Genesian Theatre with such a diverse and multicultural cast and ensemble. Assistant director Emma Whitehead has successfully enhanced Mark’s vision by incorporating elements of Live Indian classical music and choreography.

Following are the excerpts from an interview with Mark, Emma and board member of GTC Barry Nielsen.

Barry Nielsen – Member of the board; GTC

How did the decision of going with ‘A Passage to India’ come about to be in these crucial stages of transition for GTC?

‘A Passage to India’ was chosen for last year’s season and we asked Mark Nagle, the director if he was willing to consider it for 2021 instead. So, it was more of a Covid decision, and the transition to the new venue wasn’t really part of the consideration. As it turns out, and very sadly, a play set in India is very topical at the present moment.

Would it be right to say that ‘A Passage to India’ is an unconventional choice for GTC?

Although a play based on a well-known novel is a fairly typical piece for our theatre, a play with a large multi-racial cast is a rare undertaking. Often this is just because they aren’t written that way, but we certainly hope this will be just one of many to come, and not be seen as an unusual event. I certainly look forward to the day Australian theatre reflects the broad community.

GTC is changing its location, how does the Genesian Community feel about it & when is the move due?

The move to a new space in Rozelle has been a long and difficult road. The theatre members find it difficult to keep up the enthusiasm as we are still in the DA-application-at-Council stage. Most (patrons) seem very positive about the proposal. We hope to begin the build later this year for an early 2022 opening at Rozelle.

Mark Nagle: Director 

How and why did you pick and propose, ‘A Passage of India’ as a play to be performed at Genesian Theatre?

The plays presented by GTC are selected by The Board, often via a long process undertaken by a group of playreaders. The clash of old world class and culture versus the dawning of modern thought and sensibility intrigues me as humanity embraces the tenets of equality, justice, reconciliation. The discovery within the play of 100 year old character complexities proves that people from any age are driven and motivated just the same as in contemporary society. In competition with other directors, I successfully pitched my ideas and vision for the production 18 months ago, however, COVID has delayed its realisation until now. Through negotiations, new dates were found to present it in 2021.

Is your vision with ‘A Passage to India’ is inspired by the Epic and the Modern style theatre & is somewhat disruptive to conventions? Was that a concern while proposing a vision like that to GTC?

The Genesian Theatre is no stranger to big plays and large cast. A perk of Community / Independent theatre is that payment comes in the form of getting to do what you love. The theatre is the producer and creates the environment and funds to do just that.  Certainly, it is the largest cast I have worked with as a director – though not the longest play. At the time of submission, I had no concerns about the play’s appeal. The challenge was to cast it appropriately and to surround myself with creative artists who equally loved the material and had the same desire to explore the imagery that lies within the text. This is not a conventional play by any stretch of the imagination. It satisfies the intellect by shining a light on human foibles and delivers a thought provoking resolution.

Doing an epic requires even more advanced and continuous planning. One often feels that still enough preparation is not achieved. However over planning can stifle others so this has been a recurring battle for me, personally and professionally. Therefore the adage ‘it wouldn’t be half the fun if it was easy” stands firm. Though if only there were more hours in the day.

Have you worked with a CALD (Culturally & Linguistically Diverse) cast before and how has your experience been working with the current cast?

Above all, this was the most attractive element of the production. I feel it is my obligation as a theatre maker to think outside the box and discover new ways of telling stories and indeed doing so with different collaborators. I gave myself a long time to cast – my training and experience have taught me this. Curiously COVID gave me more time. But I was certain there was a strong talent pool out there. I just needed to tap into it. The rehearsal period has tested my assumptions, I have appreciated the familiar and different ways people work. Working with a culturally diverse group has developed in me a need to do it again and on another level. There is a responsibility within us all to open up the theatre scene by encouraging inclusiveness and to embrace colour blind casting within classic pieces and to enable the new and different to be told on our stages. 

What is the audience to expect with this play from what they have seen in the film or previous theatre productions of ‘A Passage to India’?

Theatre is not film nor can a playscript contain all of a writer’s thoughts and feelings. Those who know the story will rediscover it; those new to it will learn a lot about the human condition. Those who had to study it under duress will find its characters, locations, and philosophies leaping off the page. Who knows, many may revisit the novel. Artists are educators as well, I suppose however our job is to present the situation, the audience seeks out the meaning and the answers.

Emma Whitehead, Assistant Director

You’ve been working closely with the team adding the flavor of Indian music & choreography; what are your reasons & motivations to do so?

Let’s talk about music first of all – I adore plays and devised work with live music in, and audiences love it too. Live music focuses an audience, impresses them, and tugs at heart strings that are only tuggable through melody and resonance.  ‘A ‘Passage to India’ has such a dynamic script that I thought it was a no-brainer to see if we could have real Indian music match the non-linear storytelling. Secondly, dance. Dance Theatre is my favourite performance genre, so I was very keen to have some movement in the show to break up the words.

‘A Passage to India’ is one of the largest ensemble casts GTC has put on stage; how challenging is it or not to work with a large & diverse team?

​Working with a large cast brings great challenges but also great opportunities!  All the usual challenges are present, but they’re often more unwieldy than usual, e.g. struggling to find mutual rehearsal times that suit 20 cast and 10 crew with separate lives and commitments (there have been times where I’ve attended five or six rehearsals in a week because we couldn’t get everyone we needed in on the same days). The team is truly international, 50% of us were not born in Australia (including me!). There are interesting cultural differences amongst us, and we’ve learnt a lot about each other as part of the process – it’s been fun.  I’m looking forward to all the Indian cuisine that will no doubt be brought in for our final dress rehearsals and the closing party!

Indeed the cast & crew is dynamic, multifaceted, and certainly multicultural. It is a matter of pride of the Indian Diaspora in Sydney to witness members of the cast & crew Indian community. Actors such as Atharv Kolhatkar, Gaurav Kharbanda, Ankit Kapoor, Vishal Shah, Sankalp Bhatnagar, Gunjeet Singh, Sweta Kumar & Taufeeq Ahmed Sheikh, Choreographer Akshat Gupta & ensemble actors, musicians, and members of the crew like Pramod Tandon, Aman Pal & Sangeeta Tandon all endorse and are proud of their Indian heritage.

The other members of the team are seasoned actors and trained professionals in their fields of expertise comprising of James Fraser Moir, Murray Fane, Kate Smytheman, Douglas Spafford, Phoebe Kennedy, Helen Kohlhagen, Andrea Tan, Jaymes Julian Wilson, Owen Hirschfeld, Chelsea Antman, Hannah Dunwell, Christiane New, Susan Jordan, Nicholas Fitzsimmons, Miles Boland, Simon Lee, Marica Fumanti, Ryan Cuskelly, Sarah Gooda.

If you are a theatre lover, this is one show you cannot afford to miss, and certainly, this is the best play out there at the moment if you are considering venturing out to experience the fabulous mystical world of live theatre. There are a total of 17 shows to choose from with tickets available for stalls & dress circle every Friday & Saturday evening, including Sunday matinee, shows starting 15th May until 19th June. ‘A passage to India’ Tickets selling surprisingly fast, you would have to book your tickets now to not miss out on it. Log on to www.genesiantheatre.com.au

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