Review: Drawing The Line, Hampstead Theatre

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How do you carve up a country that inhabits multiple religions, languages, culture and opposing beliefs? Do you attempt a fair justice, distributing the land equally, or do you justify a border based on population density and religious spread? Howard Brenton’s new play Drawing The Line at the Hampstead Theatre chronicles the partition and independence of India and Pakistan from the British Empire across five weeks in 1947. The play focuses on three of the prominent figures – Jawaharlal Nehru (Silas Carson), the leader of the Indian Independence Movement; Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Paul Bazely), the leader of the All-India Muslim League; and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Tanveer Ghani), the religious figure who became an iconic figure for civil rights and freedom movements. Brenton’s play examines the fragile and fraught relationships these figures held at the turn of India’s freedom from British rule.

Cyril Radcliffe, played sympathetically by Tom Beard, is handed the task of drawing the border between the new Pakistani and Indian countries, chosen for his innocence towards India, having never set foot further than Italy. Slicing this mammoth country and dividing its people is no easy task: it spills blood with every movement of a line upon a map, and here lies the driving force of Brenton’s play. The reckless but unavoidable dismantling of the British Empire is shown in shameful and brutal force as independence is returned.

As a play Drawing The Line makes for a fascinating education into the brutalism with which we, as an empire and ruling force of so many colonies, discarded our interests in foreign affairs, wiping our hands clean of the imprisonment we had adopted across the world. The political and religious unrest lies heavy within the hearts of the Hindu and Muslim faiths that make up the majority of India, and this becomes the focus point within Brenton’s play, in Radcliffe’s inability to divide a country that tears at itself through imbalance. Words are threatened where weapons are void, beliefs colliding with deadly precision. Howard Davies’s direction is sharp and quick-fire alongside Brenton’s writing: but where this play crackles with knowledge that should be learned, it simmers with dramatisation, never quite finding its pace to ignite beyond a history lesson.

Tim Hatley’s India-inspired set contains the action within an iron-like cage, the actors almost becoming birds for decoration, unable to truly take flight. Nevertheless, it evokes India with every scene change aided by Rick Fisher’s superb lighting and Nicki Wells’s beautiful music. As with any Hampstead Theatre show there’s no expense spared on the production values, and whilst Hatley’s set contains a certain static quality to the play, it does allow for a rather fiery finale. Here lies the ultimate issue with Brenton’s play: for all its richness in history and conflict of religion, the fiery tempers that burn beneath each of his characters never have a chance to ignite. Drawing The Line is a fascinating look at the dismantling of India and the shame that paints British history across the world (something we are still paying for, and justly so); but it relies too heavily upon the ingrained history and tension of religion to offer the dramatisation, rather than finding the narrative pull of character tension and conflict. It’s no mean feat to pull a narrative out of history books, and Brenton certainly has done well to offer such richness in the world he creates through language and dialogue. Yet for me it misses the mark, sizzling in the second act when it could really show the impact and continual unrest India and Pakistan face because of the ‘scribbles’ thrown onto a map to separate two countries. There’s a moment when Ghani’s Gandhi says that it’s like taking a knife to the belly of India, slicing it open: this painful metaphor is exactly the tension that Drawing The Line lacks.

Within the cast there’s some fine delivery, especially in the crackling Lady Mountbatten (played by Lucy Black) and in Brendan Patricks’s Christopher Beaumont, alongside Nikesh Patel’s fiery Rao VD Ayer. Whilst Beard’s torment as Cyril Radcliffe finds itself towards the latter half of the play, he feels surely underused in the first half, which is a shame. Davies offers crisp direction to the cast, but Bazely’s Jinnah and Carson’s Nehru never really take flight until their emotional speeches at the end, partly through the contained action and direction they’re given.

Curious too is the leaning of Brenton’s writing upon an Indian Independence Movement perspective, which includes a fleeting love interest between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten, whereas the Muslim viewpoint is a simple narrative that is never expanded beyond the necessary dialogue.

Whilst Drawing The Line fails to soar, it does offer a concise and fascinating examination into the division of India and Pakistan. A reminder that we learn so little of the history – and often devastation – we as the British Nation have caused throughout the centuries, something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Brenton’s play may not fulfil but it certainly deserves a nod of appreciation and attendance if you want to brush up on your history.

Originally published on A Younger Theatre.