Review: Drawing The Line at Hampstead Theatre

Draw The Line
The tone of this play about decolonisation and partition of India, takes its humour from ’40s British witticisms but as you’d imagine, it’s far from optimistic. I like the image however, that it gives of writer Howard Brenton and director Howard Davies confidently taking on an epic, ongoing episode in our shared history. That said, they do miss the mark when it comes to the ongoing bit, though not for want of trying.

Brenton and Davies, alongside set designer Tim Hatley, do their best to leave us with an understanding of the mindset that is Pakistan (as opposed to the territory that is Pakistan). They also impress the destruction that partition caused with a memorable final scene and a slew of lingering lines amidst all the blustering, panicky dialogue of this caricature-riddled retrospective.

The panic stems from the sheer impossibility of the task at hand. Protagonist Judge Cyril Radcliffe is sent by Clement Atlee to draw the border between India and Pakistan with no knowledge of the land, politics or cartography. Louis Mountbatten, who claims to be a non-political arm of the crown, praises Radcliffe’s distance and warns him against getting “rogered by the culture.”

Edwina Mountbatten on the other hand, who’s also having an affair with Nehru, tries to offer Radcliffe guidance and opinion. Where this play fails the intelligent women of India, it succeeds in elevating Edwina above her promiscuous reputation. However, presenting her affair, or rather Mountbatten’s desperate attempts to end it, as a reason for the rushed timetable trivialises so much.

What’s more, Drawing the Line becomes overly reliant on caricatures and a few exceptions that are perhaps too exceptional. Take Rao V.D. Ayer, Radcliffe’s Secretary Assistant. He wrestles with his painful place as an Indian aiding the British in carving up his country and dares to voice his opinion, loudly and fearlessly to his superiors. It’s great that he has what is (probably a composite) clear voice, but it’s hard to imagine his words coming from a person who is essentially the assistant to the assistant.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah appears like a ’20s gangster from Chicago, not just because of his outfit but his mannerisms and his arrogance. That said, his insistence on a secular land for a Muslim population as opposed to an Islamic state, does come through well. Gandhi comes across less peace-focused and more stubborn, yet again happy to talk unconvincingly about the pros of celibacy. The Indian advisers are funny, shouty and undiplomatic and in a moment of bluntness, Mountbatten reminds Radcliffe that they’ve only been “appointed to make the show look valid.”

If this all sounds negative let me highlight two saving graces which, for me, make this play worth seeing. One is a clear notion of India not being a collection of regions, the way the British see it during this map-drawing exercise, but one large symbiotic mass of people, cultures and trades that never needed categorisation or segregation. There are also the many lingering lines that stay with you through the jokes about Radcliffe’s inevitable diarrhoea. These are lines that hint at the trans-generational imprint which colonisation and partition left on the people and cultures of India now scattered all over the world: “Scar tissue in the sun,” says Radcliffe, “it can flare up.”

Image by Catherine Ashmore

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