Howard Brenton is back at the Hampstead Theatre with his latest play, Drawing The Line, a broad account of the partition of India in 1947. Cyril Radcliffe, a British judge, chosen for his lack of knowledge about India is sent to draw the line that will divide the Indian subcontinent between Hindus and Muslims. With religious tensions running extremely high, the task appears impossible, especially when only given five weeks.
The first act is mostly spent introducing us to the 17 characters that populate the narrative. In quick succession, we meet Atlee, Mountbatten, his wife Edwina, Radcliffe, his wife Antonia, Radcliffe’s two secretaries (cum respective spies), Jawaharlal Nehru (the leader of the Indian Independence Movement), Muhammad Ali Jinnah (the leader of the Muslim League) and Gandhi.
In the second act, Radcliffe knuckles down to the job and draws the line of the title in between bouts of Delhi belly. The drama lies in Radcliffe’s attempt to minimise the unrest and deaths that will be unleashed from splitting people, families, villages, communities, from giving an eastern sea port to Pakistan and figuring out the “ownership” of Kashmir.
Politically naïve but ambitious, Radcliffe is portrayed as a decent and honourable man. Brenton’s Radcliffe is a man who has been played as a pawn in a much bigger game. I am no expert on the history of India’s partition but I couldn’t help feeling that some scenes should have been cut while others could have been expanded. Radcliffe’s wife, though well played by Abigail Cruttenden, was superfluous as was the apparition of Lord Krishna and the on-going extramarital scenes between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten. I was itching to understand more of the background historical divisions and politics of Nehru, Jinnah and Justice Teja Singh.
Brenton has a lot of material to cover and it is thus questionable why so much of it is spent on stomach problems or Nehru’s dalliance with Edwina, though entertaining they may be. We are given only cursory vignettes of the political reasons to rush the partition through. Was it political pressure on Attlee in England? A burning hole in the English treasury? Or Mountbatten’s desire to get rid of his wife’s lover?
Howard Davies‘s production is perfectly paced. Tom Beard is excellent as the well-intentioned Radcliffe, his two secretaries Christopher Beaumont (Brendan Patricks) and Rao V.D. Ayer (Nikesh Patel) offer some much-needed background information as the spies for Jinnah (Paul Bazely) and Nehru (Silas Carson) respectively. Andrew Havill gives us a convincing though singularly unimpressive and racist Mountbatten. I don’t know much about Mountbatten except for his tragic death but this portrait is less than flattering and brings to mind the mid-century bumbling white male superior view of crown and country perfectly. Too much of that silver spoon if you know what I mean. His wife Edwina appears much more astute and empathic to the plight of her host nation and is played skilfully by Lucy Black.
The incredible set by Tim Hatley and particularly the filigree screens evoke India beautifully. The fiery drawn line finale is spectacular. The Lighting (Rick Fisher) and music (Nicki Wells) add to the immersion into another time and place.
Ultimately, Brenton’s play never soars but is a worthy examination of the way in which a few men were very much to blame for the violence that ensued after partition. The unprofessional and crude way in which the British dealt with this colony is a shameful reminder of the final days of the Empire and how this nation left the fate of an entire subcontinent in the hands of a political novice.