The work of Olivier Award-winning director Howard Davies and acclaimed playwright Howard Brenton is back at the Hampstead theatre this winter with a new historical epic that once again condenses a hugely complex story into one engrossing evening.
At first glance, the story of the man who was tasked with setting the border between Pakistan and India may not sound all that thrilling. But when presented in this atmospheric and astutely directed show that brings the warmth and headiness of India to North London, even someone with a mere ounce of curiosity about this momentous period could not help but be swept away in Brenton’s compulsive version of events.
Audience members with little knowledge of Indian politics or the division of the sub-continent in 1947 will find themselves in good company, in fact. For the man who was set this most extraordinary and near impossible challenge was Mr Justice Cyril Radcliffe, the former Director General of the Ministry of Information whose expertise lay more in marketing powdered egg than cartography and political advocacy.
Tom Beard plays this loyal subject with all the bumbling, stiff upper lip, over sincere charm that you would expect from a 1940s gent. When it becomes clear his obvious ignorance of the situation has not been employed for the impartiality he brings but rather to ease his offering as a political sacrificial lamb, Beard convincingly portrays the journey from idealism to the stark reality of being forced to take responsibility for a decision that will result in inevitable bloody turmoil.
Surrounding the naive Radcliffe likes wolves are the various politicians chosen as advisors, each with their own agenda and manipulative methods. There is the charismatic Nehru (Silas Carson) who, having already won the heart of the wife of the bullish Viceroy of India, Britain’s Lord Mountbatten, attempts to woo Radcliffe, hoping to exchange cricket metaphors and scones for control of Calcutta. His opponent Jinnah, the head of the All-Muslim Indian League who takes a side of whisky with his water, prefers shouting to collaboration, and is played by Paul Bazely with a Demon Headmaster-style of sinister intimidation.
Unfolding like a fast paced, richly detailed history lesson, Davies secures his continued reputation for style with a slick show that throws in a scattering of inventive devices to add colour and excitement to the production’s traditional style. Tim Hatley’s design is suitably sumptuous, golden light and splashes of vivid colour evoking the hot, heady atmosphere, while silk curtains are swished on and off stage to reveal intricately designed Indian windows and arches.
As Radcliffe’s task is reduced to a few scrappy pieces of map and a crude pack of crayons, Drawing The Line powerfully reveals the absurdity of one man redefining the lines of the globe in just five weeks. But while it may be farcical, Brenton’s inquisitive piece offers little hope that there could have ever been another way.