Drawing the Line

Howard Brenton
Hampstead Theatre

Nikesh Patel (Rao Ayer), Tom Beard (Radcliffe) and Brendan Patricks (Beaumont) Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Silas Carson (Nehru), Lucy Black (Edwina Mountbatten) Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Silas Carson (Nehru), Tanveer Ghani (Gandhi) Credit: Alastair Muir

A great deal of credit should go to Howard Brenton for his ambition in trying to encapsulate the maelstrom of Indian religion and politics in a play that is based on historical record and lasts little more than two hours.

Like Midnight's Children, this play is set on the eve of independence and partition in 1947. What none of the participants at the time realised was that the problems they identified and attempted to overcome would still haunt the country more than six decades after a rather arbitrary but apparently permanent solution had been reached.

Drawing the Line makes good use of Cyril (later Viscount) Radcliffe, a highly respected English judge played by Tom Beard. In the first scene, Clement Attlee asks a man who had never previously visited the country to spend five or six weeks in India deciding on exactly where the border with the new nation of Pakistan should lie.

Quickly, it becomes apparent that whatever he decides, with the assistance of colleagues Brendan Patricks and Nikesh Patel as Christopher Beaumont and Rao Ayer (each leaking decisions to their respective friends), will offend far more people than it pleases.

In film-like jump cuts, we are given the opportunity to take on board the views of most of the interested parties.

For the English, Lord Mountbatten (Andrew Havill) may be Viceroy but suffers a credibility crisis because his feisty wife Edwina (Lucy Black) is carrying on an affair with Silas Carson's Pandit Nehru. What makes her infidelity far worse is that this is the grandee destined to be India's first leader, inevitably wishing to protect his own position and that of his people.

In parallel, Paul Bazeley, playing the rather patrician Muhammad Ali Jinnah, is just as keen to promote Muslim interests.

Providing little more than a lightweight comic turn, Tanveer Ghani is Mahatma Gandhi, issuing gnomic thoughts that lack any great sense of meaning.

There is also a brief, mystical appearance from the deity Lord Krishna, who dispenses wisdom to Radcliffe despite looking all too much like a reincarnated Smurf.

In view of the limited amount of time available to develop so many ideas, the characterisation struggles to get beyond skin deep. It is however possible to get at least an impression of personalities and strong motivations of each of the main protagonists.

The many different sides to the arguments are symbolically represented by designer Tim Hatley's attractive set that, like an onion, peels away more and more layers to provide additional pleasures, building up to a fiery finale.

Despite the efforts of the actors under the direction of Howard Davies, this is a discursive play that is not always high on drama. That is not its primary purpose and, by the end of the evening, viewers will have gained a greater understanding of the political stresses and religious antagonisms that have made India and Pakistan (not to mention Bangladesh) what they are today.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher