Drawing the Line at Hampstead Theatre online
Howard Davies’s tense, atmospheric 2013 production of Howard Brenton’s Drawing the Line (now available in an online recording from Hampstead Theatre at Home) attempts to draw out the politics and pain which surrounded the fateful partition of India and Pakistan.
Brenton takes the perspective of presiding British judge Cyril Radcliffe (Tom Beard) as his point of departure. Assigned by Prime Minister Clement Atlee (John Mackay) to divide a country he has never set foot in and has no knowledge of, Radcliffe arrives in India unprepared for “Delhi belly” and the febrile political situation. Sectarianism is growing violent while pompous British colonialists prepare for withdrawal. Pressured to satisfy the discontents of all parties with no reliable information and squabbling advisers, Radcliffe realises he might be the fall guy for a decision that will affect the lives of millions.
The heavy exposition is made brisk and witty through Brenton’s dialogue, performed by a committed cast. Beard’s sweaty, ingratiating performance captures the play’s liberal conscience, rendering Radcliffe another victim of circumstance. Silas Carson, Paul Bazely and Tanveer Ghani give engaging gravitas and genuine friction to the play’s even-handed characterisations of its power-players: Nehru (an acute political operator), Jinnah (fiercely honourable but resigned) and Gandhi (Ghani, in particular, breaks perceptions of the famous radical’s sage aura with an uncompromising feistiness). Only a tendency for scenes to dissolve into shouting matches upsets the subtler details in the performances.
While Brenton’s depiction of Radcliffe doesn’t allow the historical figure to get off scot-free, ultimately the playwright leans towards sympathy for his ethical and physical ailments when bisecting India. It feels unnecessarily charitable (tipping into fanciful tropes as the burdened judge is given intuition and blessing via Lord god Krishna) considering the fact that the actual people who suffer the consequences are held behind set designer Tim Hatley’s ornate screens and Mike Walker’s periodic sound recordings of raucous masses. Occasionally they make their presence felt through the comic asides of ensemble actors Shalini Peiris, Simon Nagra, Salma Hoque, Rez Kempton and Peter Singh.
Yet, Brenton bars no holds in representing the callous indifference of the British colonisers (“draw the line for peace – peace of mind!” Mountbatten demands). Andrew Havill’s balding, vainglorious viceroy bursts with wishy-washy sloganeering, occasionally dropping the veneer of civility and plummy, staccato rhythm for the nasty racist underneath. It’s left for Lucy Black’s savvy Edwina Mountbatten to elicit some consideration through a melodramatic love affair with Nehru. But after being told that the drawing of this line causes displacement and death for millions, who can care for the broken heart of an imperial tourist?
Davies’s direction has simple, effective blocking, but it’s Rick Fisher’s shadowy lighting design that evokes rising temperatures (of climate and spirit) and dark intentions. This recording’s close-frame editing gives us an intimacy with the performances even as the wide angles occasionally sacrifice the spectacle (the play’s fiery climax is somewhat underwhelming).
Nevertheless, Davies’s succinct production lays bare the imperial hubris and twisty relations that continue to reverberate in the subcontinent’s present.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore
Drawing the Line is available to view online via Hampstead Theatre’s website and the Guardian from 13th April until 19th April 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.