Drawing the Line – Howard Brenton, Hampstead Theatre.

How do we acknowledge the mess that Britain made in 1947  when the Indian subcontinent was carved into two countries?  This is the central question underlying Howard Brenton’s caustic new play.  Drawing The Line explores the moment when the line between India and Pakistan was made and British rule in India ended.

Brenton’s  mainly naturalistic script is peopled by heavyweights. His leading characters are Gandhi, Nehru and Jinna.  All  are are  enraged by this callous decision to get out fast.  All know that the  consequences of cutting the land mass into two will result in hundreds of thousands of deaths between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.  The results are still felt today.

The motor behind the drawing of the line to separate Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims is Cyril Radcliffe, the naive English judge sent out to formalise this catastrophe.  Innocently he tries to carve it up fairly: an impossible task and as Brenton makes clear there was no ‘fair’ solution apart from getting out and letting the different groups decide between themselves.  Brenton’s Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy representing British self-interest, epitomises British indifference to the mass murders that were to result from this cavalier map-making.

Radcliffe is the most interesting of Brenton’s characters.  His development from naive Englishman to a man who learns the cruelty of his government’s realpolitik is cleverly dramatised.  Radcliffe, starts out as the patsy but is fast politicised even if he does end up eventually serving British interest.

Brenton’s play seems to suggest that the Viceroy of India, Crown Representative, Lord Louis Mountbatten was behind the race to draw the line in an attempt to get his wife, Edwina, out of Nehru’s bed.  Is he ready to sacrifice a whole continent for his wife? is a question that is posed here.  But I wonder if  the affair between Edwina and Nehru, as shown in this drama, is more of a romantic distraction than a serious question.  Brenton’s  Mountbatten pretends to above politics but, contrary to popular Windsor mythology, is a cynical political schemer and a racist.

There are strong performances from the whole ensemble and the production has a terrifying end. Howard Davies’ production shows a whole continent aflame.

Julia Pascal © December 2013.