Sunday, 7 September 2014

Tom Stoppard's INDIAN INK at the Roundabout Laura Pels

     I remember seeing INDIAN INK in its first London production twenty or so years ago. Like his later and better play ARCADIA, it is to some extent about the ways in which people, particularly academics, misread the past. Like ARCADIA, it also focuses on a somewhat enigmatic heroine. The focal character is Flora Crewe (Romola Garai), a poet who has not yet found favor with audience or critics when she travels to India in 1930 for her health. India turns out to be better for her mental and spiritual health than it is for her physical health. She dies there after only a few months, but she has learned something about the spirituality of art -- even the spirituality of sex, the subject of many of her poems. Flora has been more sexually free than most British women of her class. She has also inspired artists like Mogdigliani to paint her in the nude (a priggish lover destroyed the painting). While in India Flora befriends (and perhaps beds as well) an Indian artist Nirad Das (Firdous Bamji), who paints her both clothed and in the nude. Flora's sister Eleanor (the radiant, matchless Rosemary Harris) has the picture of Flora clothed; Das's son (Bhavesh Patel), possesses the finer, more erotic picture. INDIAN INK moves back and forth between 1930 and the 1980s, when a devoted academic is trying to find material for a biography of Flora. In his discussions with Eleanor and even more in Eleanor's discussions with Das's son, and through the many flashbacks, we can assemble something of a picture of Flora, but an equally full picture of the less rebellious Eleanor and the devoted Das.
     Having spent some of his childhood in India while it was still a British colony, Stoppard writes from personal experience into the mindset of the upholders of the Raj. Of course, there are allusions to E.M. Forster's classic A PASSAGE TO INDIA. Any playwright writing about the imperial India has to acknowledge that masterpiece. However, Stoppard has written an original,  finely nuanced play.
     I was disappointed in INDIAN INK twenty years ago. I thought it was far from Stoppard's best work, one reason why it has taken so one to get to New York. The other reason is that it takes a large cast and a number of south Asian actors. However, in Carey Perloff's fine production, the play emerges like a painting that has been masterfully restored. It is far better than the original London production. Perloff obviously loves this play and she makes the audience share her love for its textures and characters. It's very British in its length and discursiveness, but it holds an audience's attention. Neil Patel has created a serviceable unit set, lit effectively by Robert Wierzel.
     Romola Garai plays Flora. With her blonde beauty, she looks the part of this upper-class young Englishwoman who seems to be a sexual magnet. She's fine in the part, though I find her shrill voice irritating. The men in the cast are all excellent, particularly Firdous Bamji, who makes Das a complex character. Flora keeps demanding that he be less Indian, and we see his inner conflicts about his race, his social position, his sensitivity about his art and his adoration of this English woman, who should be forbidden fruit. It's a really fine performance and I look forward to seeing more of Bamji. What can one say about Rosemary Harris, who made her Broadway debut in 1952 and still is the most charismatic, spiritual actress? It's always a joy to watch her work.
     This production of INDIAN INK is well worth seeing. Highly recommended.
INDIAN INK. Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre

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