Howard Brenton’s late-career revival shows no sign of abating with his third consecutive play at Hampstead Theatre, following on from 55 Days and #aiww: The Arrest of Ai WeiWei. His ambitions have not diminished either: Drawing the Line is another condensed epic dramatizing momentous historical events and featuring portraits of the key figures who helped shape them.
This time, however, he focuses on an unfamiliar name, Cyril Radcliffe, who nonetheless played a pivotal role in deciding where the border should be established between the newly separated nations of India and Pakistan as the British Raj ended in 1947, leading to at least half a million deaths.
We see the judge Radcliffe unexpectedly summoned to Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s office with the brief of ‘drawing the line’ for the partition, although he has no experience of the subcontinent or cartography, and is given only five weeks to do it. As a well-meaning but naïve outsider in India he is soon embroiled in the conflicting demands of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh representatives, who want the best deal for their own people.
In particular, Congress Party leader Nehru and the Muslim League’s Jinnah exert their persuasive powers, while even though he refuses to become involved in the division of his homeland Gandhi’s hugely popular presence cannot be ignored. In addition, the last viceroy Lord Mountbatten’s wife tries to use her influence on behalf of her lover Nehru.
Brenton makes it clear early on that Radcliffe’s judicious efforts to create a ’level playing field’ are doomed to failure as Britain, bankrupt from the war, rushes to get out of India, after centuries of colonization, leaving the various religious factions to fight it out amongst themselves. With great concision and considerable wit, he shows how the quintessentially British establishment liberal Radcliffe is used as a ‘patsy’ for an impossible task in such a massively mixed-up country as India. Occasionally, it feels like information exchanged between characters is really there for the audience’s benefit – a pitfall which is no doubt difficult to wholly avoid in a play like this – and some of what is presented is no more than informed speculation, but there is a strong sense of the subcontinent on the brink of a disastrous start to independence.
Howard Davies (who also helmed 55 Days, as well as Brenton’s Paul and Never So Good at the National) directs a cast of 17 with assurance, setting a brisk pace so that the action doesn’t get bogged down in heavy detail. Tim Hatley’s design of ornamental screens provides a suitably exotic backdrop, while the incendiary coup de theâtre at the end is a chilling sign of things to come.
As the out-of-depth Radcliffe, Tom Beard gives a sterling account of an honourable man given an invidious job to do, cracking up under the strain of heat, ‘Delhi belly’ and guilt. Silas Carson’s smoothly charming Nehru is contrasted with Paul Bazely’s more intense, hostile Jinnah, with Tanveer Ghani lending Gandhi an unusually ambivalent presence as a holy man who prefers to keep his hands clean by letting others do the dirty work. Andrew Havill is a cynically racist Lord Mountbatten in thrall to his vivaciously attractive wife (Lucy Black), while John Mackay’s laconically inscrutable Attlee is determined to end Britain’s immoral empire without caring who clears up the mess afterwards.