Theatre: Indian Ink at American Conservatory Theater

I've read more Stoppard than I've seen performed, which I always think is a shame since plays are meant to be seen and experienced live. But one can't see everything. And there's a lot out there that I don't much care for, even on paper.

Then again, maybe it's awful on paper but great on stage. That can happen sometimes. (And vice versa.)

In any case, I haven't read Indian Ink, but the play—this production of it, at least—was phenomenal. As I understand it, Stoppard and the director Carey Perloff tinkered a bit with it, so this version is somewhat different than the original. Whatever they've done, it works. Every actor pulled his and her weight, and it was nicely staged. I don't know how I feel about the whole "bringing them back out for a freeze" at the end, which seems a bit gimmicky, but that's a small thing. And I understand the choice, the idea of the frozen and unattainable past, things that don't even make it into photographs and letters and so are lost forever, but . . . ::shrug::

The story is of Flora Crewe, a poet visiting India for her health. While there, she meets a painter who has loved her work and wishes to paint her portrait. Simultaneously, a future timeline explores Flora's sister Eleanor some time after Flora's death in India. A professor is researching Flora for a biography he wishes to write and, based on Flora's letters, goes in search of what he is sure is a nude painting of Flora Crewe.

The themes are largely about what is known and unknown, with whom we share things versus with whom we don't. There are, one supposes, layers of "knowing" a person. Layers of intimacy. A biographer's aching desire to know his subject won't necessarily get him any closer to it; bonds are not formed that way, can't be forced.

There are political themes as well, though my understanding from the program is those were toned down in this rewrite. We're talking India in 1930, still a part of the British Empire, and a young British woman traveling there, being painted by an Indian artist (a term used many times in the play, "Indian artist" and also Flora demanding her painter not be "so Indian," to which he responds quite logically, "but I am Indian.") A clash of cultures, then, and yet things that are difficult on a grand scale—two countries trying to mesh—are sometimes not so on a smaller one, as when two people try to find common ground.

Yet in the case of the biographer, one wonders: Can common ground be found when one party is dead? Sure, but only from one side. The deceased cannot confer intimacy on the living, the living can only assume it, take it for themselves.

I won't deconstruct any further. This isn't meant to be an essay, only a reflection. And a simple statement that it was a very good play.

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