Monday 16 December 2013

Theatre review: Drawing the Line

Howard Brenton's on a bit of a roll at Hampstead Theatre, where he's debuting his third new play in just over a year. After the English Civil War and Chinese political prisoners he turns to the very last days of the Raj, with the 1947 partition of India, and the man charged with Drawing the Line. A respected judge but with no knowledge either of India or of maps, Cyril Radcliffe (Tom Beard) is called upon to redraw the map of the subcontinent. As the British Empire withdraws, India is filled with bloody religious conflict; although many different religions are represented in the country, Radcliffe's job is to divide along artificially simplistic lines: India for the Hindus, led by Nehru (Silas Carson,) and a new nation of Pakistan in the North for the Muslims, led by Jinnah (Paul Bazely.) With all the religious groups spread throughout the country, Radcliffe begins with a blank canvas, but his attempts at fairness will come across pressure not just from political interests, but personal ones as well.

Brenton really is so good at breathing life into these historical, political plays. However many strong feelings and hot topics there might be behind the issues, this still boils down to a story about redrawing borders on a map, so it could have been very dry but it's anything but.

The strength in Howard Davies' production is in the personalities behind the opposing views, and Beard's Radcliffe comes across as a fundamentally decent man, cracking under the realisation that he's not really there to make the decisions but to be the patsy for the inevitable fallout. With appointed advisors from all the factions, the one voice he really wants to hear from is the one that's denied to him: Gandhi (Tanveer Ghani) is fundamentally opposed to partition, and believes that meeting with the judge would be seen as an endorsement.

Though Radcliffe remains the central figure, there's plenty of well-drawn personalities elsewhere giving a full picture, with Bazely's fiery Jinnah a contrast to Carson's smooth politician Nehru. The opposing views are brought right into the room where the map's being drawn up, by Radcliffe's assistants Christopher (Brendan Patricks) and Rao (Nikesh Patel,) old school friends but each with a loyalty to one of the opposing sides. And while declaring himself impartial, Viceroy Mountbatten (Andrew Havill) proves the authoritarian voice of Empire even in its dying gasps.

Humour is used pretty sparingly but effectively, notably when the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, unable to agree on anything else, gravely concur that Radcliffe is going completely the wrong way about treating his Delhi belly. But there's a sadness not just to the impossibility of the task - a crucial compromise involves promising a referendum on Kashmir, which in 2013 still hasn't happened - but also to the pettiness behind decisions that could see the deaths of thousands: Brenton ends up arguing that the ridiculously short timetable given for deciding partition, as well as some of the lands granted to each side, ultimately came down to Mountbatten avoiding embarrassment over his wife's (Lucy Black) affair with Nehru. It's a bleak but compelling study of politics on an international stage.

Drawing the Line by Howard Brenton is booking until the 11th of January at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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