BACK in the 1990s, I was lucky enough to see Anthony Minghella talk about the making of his Oscar winning film, The English Patient. Minghella was both director and screenwriter, adapting Michael Ondaatje’s novel for the screen. This, it turned out, was easier said than done: the first cut, which involved filming pretty much the whole novel, came in at eight hours. Minghella then stripped out everything he could think of: the film was still four hours long. Finally, he cut again, bringing his version down to just over two and a half hours.

This week, Salisbury Playhouse is hosting an adaptation of another classic novel – EM Forster’s A Passage to India. Adapted and co-directed by Simon Dormandy, the play manages to effortlessly capture the essence of Forster’s book: the wider themes of two contrasting cultures and the corrosive effect of colonialism; and the more personal ones of love, friendship and faith. It’s a stripped-down production, successfully using the theatregoer’s imagination and Forster’s words to carry the story through.

I caught up with Simon before the opening night, to ask him how one goes about translating a story from page to stage. Simon described how during his early work as an actor for Cheek By Jowl and the RSC, he’d seen via their productions of Vanity Fair and Nicholas Nickleby how you could cut to the skeleton of the story with incredible speed. Unlike in a novel, where there is more time for the narrative to go in different directions, on the stage you need a ‘straight line’ of narrative for the theatregoer to follow through.

The obligation of the adapter, Simon explained, is not towards the fullness of the novel, but to create a dramatic experience that is true to the core of the book. Simon’s take is thus slightly different to other theatre adaptation and also David Lean’s 1984 film – his version brings out more of the philosophical and religious elements that the original book closes on.

This particular adaptation dates back from when Simon was director of drama at Eton College. That original performance featured future acting stars Eddie Redmayne, who dressed up to play Miss Adela Quested, and Tom Hiddleston, slightly less glamorously chosen to play the front right leg of the elephant. ‘I don’t think he’s ever quite forgiven me,’ Simon laughed.

Certainly, there seems something in the water with Forster at the moment. This new production follows on from the BBC’s adaptation of Howard’s End in the autumn.

Simon suggests this is partly because of how Forster’s themes chime with the present moment – the role of elites and inter-ethnic tensions – but also about how writing this good is able to speak out across the generations.