When Indian Ink, which has just opened in an expertly staged, sensitively acted, and visually mediocre production at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels space, premiered in London in 1995, some critics thought it sentimental. It was, the argument went, too peopled with prone-to-sob Indians: the heroine, the poet Flora Crewe, urged them to buck up, but the overall effect was a bit lachrymose. There was no major New York staging – until this one, featuring Romola Garai as Flora.
Such cavils must be seen in context. Stoppard’s previous play, Arcadia, had, like Indian Ink, seesawed between past and present. It had employed a central device – a present-day academic chasing down the factual minutiae of a creative luminary – more wondrously than had Indian Ink, and so the latter was roughed up here and there.
Two decades on, Indian Ink stands more firmly on its merits. It may lack the spell-casting exhaustiveness of The Jewel in the Crown and the eerie nuances of A Passage to India (the latter is referenced), but it is, all the same, a beautifully stitched piece of work.
Crewe has come to the Indian native state of Jammapur, in April 1930, for her health. She meets a Dickens-spouting nationalist painter called Nirad Das, portrayed with tact and occasional outrage by Firdous Bamji. Nirad paints her portrait – art that captures the attention, in the mid-1980s, of a scholar, Eldon Pike, who is an American, and thus, in the hackneyed tradition of British dramatists, utterly devoid of irony.
Flora’s 75-year-old sister, Eleanor Swan, played with a superb avoidance of over-cosiness by Rosemary Harris, endures Pike’s literalist queries. She reacts more fondly to the visit of Nirad’s artist son, Anish, sketched with fierce pride by Bhavesh Patel. Ostensibly, Indian Ink asks whether Flora had affairs with Nirad or with a British army officer or even with Jammapur’s ostentatious ruler. But the more compelling theme is the difference between the impossible-to-capture expressions of feeling in human interaction and their more satisfying iterations in art.
I must say that those iterations, which make for an absorbing evening, would have been even more magical had Neil Patel’s otherwise smart set not contained a hulking, cheap-looking blue-purple wall. But Flora, so fetching in a yellow-silk dress, and interpreted with willowy sensuality by Garai, helped me to blot out the backdrop.