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Indian Ink

Tom Stoppard
Salisbury Playhouse
(2007)

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It is easy to understand why Indian Ink, though rarely seen since its first production in 1995, is one of Tom Stoppard’s favourite plays.

Stoppard is fascinated by intellectual and cultural themes and this story of an imaginary poet visiting the Raj for the first time offers free reign in both. Many of us knew well that he was Czech-born, and shares the delight of other foreign-born writers and speakers in their adopted language. Yet it comes as a surprise to me, at least, to discover that Stoppard himself spent part of his childhood in India.

This production by Lucy Pitman-Wallace positively reeks with the life and spirit of the Raj. Nancy Surman’s settings hang amid screens and Eucalyptus and there is a sense of intense heat warning that it is already time for to the English rulers to head for the hills.

First, however, we must be educated, not only in the plot but also, as becomes the fiercely intellectual Stoppard, in the ways of the governors and the governed. We must be reminded how the servants are patronised by their masters and bullied by their own kind.

Thus the players, rather more Asian than English, as one expects, perspire visibly before us as the air conditioning fails and the lights dim.

In contrast, and some fifty years later, the elegant Eleanor Swan (an excellent performance by Katharine Barker) entertains the irritating academic Eldon Pike (Steven O’Neill) in her English garden back home. Afternoon tea in its English translation is being served as Pike attempts to recall personal memories of her late, illustrious sister.

And so the story unfolds, moving gently back and to, between Bombay circa 1930 and the suburban garden of 50 years later. The ubiquitous tea is served with style and regularity on both continents, so that one shudders to think of the cost of this production in terms of Victoria sponge and Battenberg, not to mention those professional waistlines.

For the key role of writer Flora Crewe, Stoppard has produced one of his more impressive acts of legerdemain – snippets of poetry supposedly written by this character. No matter how good the lines may be, however, they are by no means sufficient to upstage the fine performance of Cate Hamer, a fascinating study of an imaginary literary legend.

Chook Sibtain gives a powerful performance as the painter Nirad Das and there are strong performances, too, from Tony Boncza who makes a welcome return to the Playhouse as a suitably pompous Resident, Rashid Karapiet (Coomaraswami) and Sandeep Sharma as the imposing Rajah.

While it is difficult to overlook the exhibitionism which seems a particular hallmark of Stoppard’s work, it is even more difficut to avoid the conclusion that that this is simply because he is better at it than lesser writers!

"Indian Ink" continues at The Playhouse until Saturday 5th May.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole