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Drawing The Line— Hampstead Theatre At Home

Reviewer: Louise Burns

Writer: Howard Brenton

Director: Howard Davies

At midnight, on the 14th of August 1947 Britain’s Indian Empire was partitioned, creating Pakistan and changing forever the landscape of India. Sectarian violence erupted, and a forced migration ensued. What caused this situation is complex, and in Drawing The Line playwright Howard Brenton skilfully tells the human story of the final days leading to the British exit from India. We are taken behind closed doors to an imagining of how (yet another) line is drawn on a map, deciding the fate of a Nation.

Brenton is careful not to present sketches of evil villains, but the side of judgement falls firmly on the shoulders of the British political powers. John MacKay is given only two brief scenes but captures a self-righteous Clement Atlee. Director Howard Davies’s vivid directing creates a powerful opening image. MacKay is positioned behind an imposing mahogany desk, vaguely scribbling with his pen as he knowingly asks the unqualified Radcliffe, “to draw a line”. This recklessness is later acknowledged without regret, “that of course it will be bloody and a mess”. Andrew Havill’s Lord Mountbatten’s thoughtless racist remarks are casually littered throughout his dialogue. The cavernous disconnect between politics and people resonates loudly when Mountbatten calmly estimates that an acceptable level of deaths would be 100,000.

The heart of this story belongs to Tom Beard’s dignified Justice Cyril Radcliffe, to whom Atlee unloads this insurmountable task. In Beard’s captivating performance, we read every nuance of responsibility and we feel his ever-growing insanity. Brenton positions Radcliffe as an unfortunate man of discretion, seeking “wisdom and understanding” from incoming Indian Prime Minister Nehru, Muslim League leader Jinnah, and Gandhi, all of whom are passionately arguing for their people and land. In the hands of Silas Carson, Nehru plays the charm in public and a shrewdness in private— especially when secretly meeting his lover Edwina Mountbatten. Jinnah is portrayed by Paul Brazely with a restrained underlying anger as he manoeuvres for position. Brenton only allows a fleeting view of Gandhi, although in the hands of Tanveer Ghani’s he successfully projects a man more interesting than myth.

In this playing field of men, women are often side-lined, but Brenton draws Lucy Black’s Edwina Mountbatten as intelligent, sensitive and relevant. Edwina clearly has local knowledge of the human crisis outside bureaucratic doors, and she holds sway. Somewhat frustrating Abigail Cruttenden’s Antonia Radcliffe is left behind, apart from warning Radcliffe to keep his feet dry or he’ll get some terrible sort of virus.

Tom Hatley’s clever set design uses tall, patterned wood partitions to indicate a world of India and aside from strategically placed desks, chairs and props the space is sparse, allowing the story to unfold through precise acting and sharply constructed dialogue.   It is a shame that in the online screening the camera does not pick up the detail of Rick Fisher’s lighting, and at times dialogue sounds tinny in quality.

Drawing The Line premiered in 2013, shorty after David Cameron pledged a referendum on Europe if the Conservatives won the election. Brenton’s play can be read as a stark warning. Indeed, there is reference to a W. B. Yeats’s poem about Julius Caesar. Alas, he could not have known about The Ides of June 2016. There is an unforeseen significance however of watching the online screening of this play under lockdown during the coronavirus. Radcliffe struggled with urgent life altering decisions based on inaccurate information, just as today health experts and our NHS are labouring to save lives. And the politicians? Eden and Mountbatten worried about how the situation reflected on them, while today we wash our hands, and wait.

Available to watch here 19 April 2020

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