Drawing the Line at the Hampstead Theatre
“I am, I believe, what American gangster movies call the patsy.” Thus speaks Cyril Radcliffe, the judge sent out to “draw the line” between India and the new state of Pakistan, and the central character of Howard Brenton’s new play. He had no experience of the subcontinent, or of cartography. Attlee, according to Brenton a rather indifferent brute of a man, sends him out on the grounds that he will be impartial.
He is not terribly interesting. The programme, obliged to provide a historical profile, rips off Wikipedia word for word. Brenton does little more; perhaps sensing that this mild man’s own story would read as Scoop done by Somerset Maugham, he leaves him a few scenes of farce, as well as a mental breakdown that, in the historical context, constitutes the mouse’s share of the tragedy. The patsy will not make the play. Nor will the individual subplots, which detract rather than add to the drama.
The historical context is Brenton’s true subject, and he handles it beautifully, neatly summarising each political agenda through their respective mouthpieces: Nehru, Jinnah, Mountbatten, and so on. His point is rather more difficult. Brenton seems to have wavered in his left wing convictions. The British come off not as oppressors, but as men trapped before a flood that preceded them. India’s future leaders cannot tame the mob, and will blame the British when they don’t achieve their aims, just as the British will label them extremists.
Gandhi doesn’t come off too well – for Brenton he is a distant crackpot who at the play’s end announces that the Hindus should offer themselves as “willing sacrifices”. As with the laconic Attlee, one senses a bizarre indifference to what in reality was at stake. The hero of the piece is Nehru, who accepts the inevitability of the border and tries to minimize the damage it will do. Brenton includes a direct quote from Nehru: “Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will.”
Directing is superb, the acting choppy. Another quote provides the key to the piece: in Act II, Radcliffe is described as being firm as “granite clockwork”. A bizarre phrase until one realises that it applies, not to Radcliffe, but to the whole mess of India in 1947 – the unstoppable forces with bloody conclusion in plain sight to all.
Drawing the Line is at Hampstead Theatre until 11th January 2013. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.