BY CARLOS STAFFORD, THE MODEL CRITIC
When you see a Tom Stoppard play certain elements are always present: he dazzles with his useage of the English language, while at the same time offering theatrically challanging and provocative ideas. As playwright and thinker, he often accomplishes his concepts by crafting historically ambiguous, but plausible humanistic visions from the past, and linking them in a time warp to the present, as people and emotions become linked in time, immutable. The trip is breathtaking, and his scope is large.
Luckily, two plays presented by the Roundabout, The Real Thing, starring Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon and Josh Hamilton, now playing, and Indian Ink, with the incomparable Rosemary Harris and Romola Garai etc, which has recently closed at The Laura Pels, have thrilled Stoppardphiles. Thanks must be extended to Tood Haimes of the Roundabout for his vision in bringing these two fine works to delight audiences this fall season.
Ms Harris and Ms Garai are peerless in Indian Ink; a play concerned with a magical romance in India between an English woman and an Indian man in the early 20th century; one that time-shifts to 1980’s England, uncovering a long-ago correspondence betweeen sisters. Much like Stoppard’s Arcadia, crafted in a similar telescoping motif, costumes and music are sometimes the only clues that indicate the period separation. Present characters are siblings, biographers and offsprings linked to the past that try to uncover secrets buried long ago. Clues remain, bits and pieces, but enigmas remain undefined.
Essentially, for Indian Ink, Stoppard has said that in the beginning, he wanted to have a play about a conversation between a poet and a painter. Since Stoppard spent part of his youth in India, having been taken by his parents out of Czechoslovakia during the Nazi Invasion of WW11, he decided to use India as rich source material for his fictional, free-spirited poet, Flora Crewe visiting India, while suffering from TB, and Nirad Das, a local painter (a wonderful Firdous Bamji) who creates a nude painting of her that survives as a legacy and clue for an English biographer 50 years later researching Flora’s life and poetry. Questions abound from the collected letters, secrets exposed perhaps, but all is imagined from the gauzy view of history.
The backdrop is Jammapour, a fictional Indian locale. The time is 1930’s India, where the English have had colonial rule since the early 17th Century under Queen Elizabeth 1. English culture dominates, but change is imminent as the gracious hosts are primed for independence with the Great Salt March, led by Mahatma Ghandi, in a non-violent protest opposing British rule that disallowed salt to be collected and sold by Indians.
Through intimate, tender and honest conversations between Flora and Nirad, we learn of Hindu culture, Krishna, Brahmin, Vishnu, Gita Govinda, etc., and the the concept of Rasa, “the essence of emotion.” Flora asks Nirad if his painting of her has Rasa. The answer gives meaning to their possible love affair, implied rather than specific, as the painting is found years later with Flora’s younger sister, now the aging Eleanor Swan (Rosemary Harris) living in England. Sensual and evocative, Flora’s and Nirad’s romance crosses cultural boundaries of what was then acceptable.
RASA: is an aspect of Hindu tradition that is defined as the essence of emotion. It has many literal meanings in Sanskrit such as “taste” or “juice.” The term originates from the ancient Hindu teachings and is used to describe the “emotional essences” of art, literature, and the performing arts. There are nine rasas in total: Shringara (love), Hasya
(joy), Shanta (peace), Raudra (anger), Veera (courage), Karuna (sadness), Bhayanaka (fear), Vibhatsa (disgust). According to Nirad it is the artist’s duty to evoke these rasas in the viewer of a work of art. (Upstage Guide, Roundabout Theatre Company)
The story is nothing if not magically lush and transporting. Real life characters are woven into the fictional story throughout–E.M Forster, and A Passage to India is referenced, H.G. Wells, who is Nirad’s favorite English author, The Bloomsbury Group, Modigliani, who also once painted Flora (again fictionally), Arthur Conan Doyle, Gunga Din from Kipling–all embodied in conversations as life and art merge. Colonialism paints another type of reality and determines the obvious tensions and struggles with power and caste.
Stoppard succeeded in delivering Rasa. And Carey Perloff’s superb ease of direction conveyed a familiarity and understanding in guiding characters from two cultures in two distinct times. Plus, she well understood Stoppard’s intent, and created a naturalistic, tangible environment. With one set only, used in imaginative ways, an hypnotic world was created between dream and memory, language and perhaps another Passage to India of sorts; I would say it covered as a warm breeze passing on a quiet hillside of memory.
Finally, we have an outstanding story with a beguiling sweep of romance, art, history, colonialism, religion, together with the more intimate and private reminisces of a sister, and a biographer, and the untold story of what really happened to a unique character in an equally unique place in time.
The acting was superb all around, a big success.