Our greatest living playwright, the English via Czechoslovakia Tom Stoppard grew old, just a little, just a little. In recent years we’ve had the overlong Russia saga The Coast Of Utopia and the Czech summer meets Syd Barrett Rock N Roll, and neither sustained the conceit. I watched The Coast of Utopia in one long 12 hour sitting without only the first play , Voyage, a masterpiece. Rock n Roll proved Rock and roll was not a simple subject.
Stoppard’s greatest work , slightly below that height I would put The Invention Of Love and The Real Thing and if I could I’d include a personal favorite, the radio player Pink Floyd tribute Darkside just below those two and the screenplay to “Brazil” near thereafter. Past those heights come second tier Stoppard, all those late 60s, 70s plays, Jumpers. Travesties, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead -that lot, the form over everything else as intellectual tetris. And finally the more recent work and relatively minor stuff like Hapgood and the Academy Award winning Best Screenplay Shakespeare In Love.
So where does that leave the also time shifting sister play to Arcadia, 1995’s Indian Ink? It leaves it third tier Stoppard. The story of a free spirited poet Flora Crew (Romola Garai), who visited India for health reasons just as Nationalism began to rear its head with the Salt March in 1930 and her kid sister Eleanor Swan, dealing with renewed interest in her beloved Flora’s poetry fifty years later, it has a great deal to recommend it. What it doesn’t have is those one or two scenes that seem to levitate, the language so beautiful and compelling, the places where the heart soars forward. Just recently, Darkside had a litany of people you wouldn’t miss if they died in a train crash: “Who’s to say he didn’t save a serial killer? Or a mad bomber on a date with destiny? Or just people who fuck you up normally? Geography teachers or ticket inspectors or boyfriends who shag your best friend? People who write the small print, see over for the penalties? People who go ‘I’m telling you for your own good’ and ‘can’t you read we’re closed’? All of them saved…”. It is only the second track on the album but you are left feeling very very well, very happy. That moment doesn’t happen during Indian Ink. Indian Ink is a really great album without that one killer track, it is John Lennon’s Mind Games.
Indian Ink takes various strands and knots them together. The English and Indian romance, love affair, is self evident. How else is a country ruled by a presence of 300 English for every one million Indians? Churchill noted that once Britain loses India it loses the empire and that’s what happened when Churchill gave up India to save Britain during WW2. But the two great countries are the supreme example of colonization that doesn’t go back as far as ancient Rome. And in reply as to how Britain ruled India, surely a side effect of the caste system (the sense that one people can rule another) had something to do with it. The play takes place in India, a quest for the truth behind three paintings of Flora and the truth about her friendship with an Indian artist Nirad Das (Firdous Banji) in 1930, months before her death. In the present (well, in the 1980s), Eleanor is joined by biographer Eldon Pike (Neal Huff) and Nizad’s son Anish (Bhavesh Patel) in a search for the truth behind the paintings.
As metaphors go, a painting which is a mixture of Western and Indian elements isn’t a bad idea at all, and the play, at two and a half hours, doesn’t drag, but Stoppard misses his mark, as love story it doesn’t coalesce, as biographical witch hunt, it is nowhere close to the did Lord Byron fight a duel mystery at the heart of Arcadia and as a love letter to India or the lost Empire, it doesn’t quite feel right.
But if you get over Indian Ink not being the play you want it to be, there is so much of value here it is a delight. First and foremost, Romali Garai, a wonderful actress who has never made the slightest impression on me before, is a dew drenched English Rose, a tall willowy lovely woman with a sudden courage and kindness about her; you can’t take your eyes off Romali even if all she is doing is taking off her shoes, the great stage actress Rosemary Harris is not giving the big scene she needs as the big sister so it is almost purely due to Harriss gifts the character comes to life, Huff makes the biographer likable in a less than well crafted role, Firdous Banji as the artist is a better man that you are Gunga Din and more, a man with a deep inner life and Bhavesh Patel as his son, by his very presence, shows post-Colonial India. Director Carey Perlof, who also directed the 1999 American premiere, is finely attuned to the material and to Stoppard, as Carey has noted they are both Eastern European Jews, they have that backstory they share.
The material seemed to stymie Stoppard a little, what it seems to miss, perhaps it was trying to do one thing too many, is the Indian in Indian Ink, what it seems to miss is a real sense of English and Indians living together. There is too much material, too much needs to be grasped too quickly. With Arcadia, Byron connected the two halves so well Stoppard had the room for second law of thermodynamics without losing the thread, but here he can’t seem to do it. And what is lost is the language.
Third tier Stoppard, first tier everyone else.
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