Drawing The Line. Live relay screening from Hampstead Theatre. 11-01-14

Drawing the Line at the Hampstead, London

Peter Singh as Lord Krishna and Tom Beard as Cyril Radcliffe.
Production photograph by Tristram Kenton for The guardian.

All I can suggest is we try a tentative scribble.

When Cyril Radcliffe is asked to draw the line which will partition India and Pakistan as the British leave India in 1947 he is placed in an almost intolerable position. There is no right answer for him to find. Leaving the people of the sub continent to potentially tear themselves apart with no line drawn is not seen as an option but no matter where the arbitrary line is drawn there will still be conflict and bloodshed as India is a subcontinent, not a single nation, and its diverse people are never going to be herded into place quietly as if they were sheep. Everybody accepts that- the British are already talking about what might be an acceptable level of bloodshed- and he is the well meaning, principled “patsy” who has been drafted in to sort it out. The sooner the better as the British can’t wait to leave. It is a horrible mess described unflinchingly with compassion and a certain amount of humour in Howard Brenton’s new play Drawing The Line at Hampstead Theatre. The writing is sparse and to the point, moving along swiftly to its inevitable conclusion, and you watch the action unfold with a mixture of horror, disbelief and deep sadness. We are shown the essence of the situation with great skill and economy.

The central performance by Tom Beard who plays Radcliffe is very fine indeed. He shows us the man’s pain and good sense with great delicacy, never overplaying. It was a good decision to centre the play around him. We need someone who we can identify with among all the swirling points of view and he is our everyman, we see things through his eyes. This throws into focus the deeply unsympathetic portrait of Mountbatten and the suspicion and anger of those around him. Muhammed Jinnah is portrayed with a real sense of danger and suppressed anger by Paul Bazely and Silas Carson has great dignity as Jawaharal Nehru, a cultivated man who is having an affair with Mountbatten’s wife. One of the most beautifully written scenes in the play is the one which shows their final meeting as events drive them apart.

The design by Tim Hatley, based around filigree screens is a vision of traditional India, calm and serene, a world as it should be, a world which is under threat, and it is beautifully lit by Rick Fisher. Howard Davies direction is clear and understated, matching the writing perfectly. A deeply satisfying, well executed and thoughtful piece of theatre.