Play Review: Drawing the Line

It has been 57 years since the Indian sub-continent gained independence from the British. Since then, generations of Indians and Pakistanis have continued to share family stories or actual experiences of the violent mass migration between the newly-formed countries of India and Pakistan that resulted in the deaths of nearly half a million and the injuries of many more. The aftermath of that Partition continues to this day as politicians and nationalists of both countries try to manage the tenuous truce and the frequent violence that flares up at the borders and in volatile inland regions.

drawing the line brenton play ii
Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the outgoing British Viceroy and his wife, Richard and Edwina Mountbatten. [Source: http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com]
Growing up in India, our history textbooks had, perhaps, a few paragraphs or a brief chapter on how the British authorities devised and managed the post-Independence Partition. The general consensus, which Indians, Pakistanis and British, all agree with is: very badly. Britain’s new Labor Government, headed by Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, was deep in wartime debt and had an urgent need to get out of India, which was also becoming an increasingly unstable part of the British Empire. Further, there was the issue of how to keep some allies in the region after leaving. With as many conflicting political interests, the only plausible way would be to separate the Hindu and Muslim majorities by giving them their own countries. But, how to do that when pre-Independence India was a sub-continent of some 2000 religious sects, scattered all across the country, often living side by side in the same villages, towns and cities? How to “draw the line” to create two separate countries such that both Hindus and Muslims would be satisfied? Who would get the hotly-debated Kashmir and Calcutta regions, full of both Hindu and Muslim populations, and, geographically, highly strategic regions that everyone coveted? And, what to do with Punjab, where the Sikhs wanted their own state, even though the region had the most confusingly mixed Hindu-Muslim-Sikh population? How to divide 175,000 square miles of territory with 88 million people?

With such a complex historical event, it is impossible to provide a well-balanced perspective that will satisfy a large majority in just 20-something scenes over a couple of hours. Especially when, to this day, there are still many unanswered questions. And, while the play, ‘Drawing the Line‘ (written by Howard Brenton, directed by Howard Davies) has been sold out at the Hampstead Theater since it started, debates regarding its fairness (interestingly, one of the key themes within the play) continue.

Drawing the Line, Howard Brenton, Hampstead theatre: Nikesh Patel, Tom Beard, Brendan Patricks
Drawing the Line – still from the play [Source: http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com]
So, it was a bold move for Hampstead Theater to agree to live-stream the play with The Guardian’s audience on Saturday, January 11, 2014. Apparently, thousands from 80+ countries tuned in to watch either the live performance or the replay after. On Tuesday, January 14, 2014, the playwright, Howard Brenton, followed up with a live chat session at The Guardian as well.

Brenton, in his opening statements before the live-streaming started, acknowledged the ambitious charter of his play:

The play has big themes: the end of the British Empire, the birth of India and Pakistan and the terrible human consequences of the creation of the border between them. But it also celebrates the humanity and brilliance of the leaders of the different communities and their visions for a better future.

So, let’s start with the story. It is told primarily through Radcliffe’s point of view. Having never been to India before and not knowing anything of map-reading, he is a surprise appointment by British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, to the position. This is evident from the reactions, ranging from bemusement to frustration, of all the key players: Mountbatten (Viceroy of India), Nehru (Congress Party Leader and soon-to-be Prime Minister of India), Jinnah (Muslim League Party Leader and soon-to-be Premier of Pakistan), Edwina (wife of Mountbatten and lover of Nehru), Gandhi (the Father of the Nation who was opposed to Partition), Beaumont (Englishman and secretary on the Boundary Commission, reporting to Radcliffe), Ayer (Hindu Nationalist and also secretary on the Boundary Commission, reporting to Radcliffe). Now, this is a smart move on Brenton’s part as Radcliffe, while instrumental, is not as well-known as the rest of the key characters. So, we get a fresh perspective from a historical figure, who, till now, has been rather obscure.

Arriving in India with not much more than his principles, his lawyerly sense of fairness and the famous English decency, Radcliffe is not at all prepared for the maelstrom of political conflicts that immediately engulfs him. Desperately, he tries to understand the issues of all concerned while trying to learn more about India and get over his own culture shock (including a bad bout of dysentery that becomes, wait for it, a running joke throughout the play). The resources provided to him are insufficient. First, the census figures are from before or during WWII, so, of course, not of much use as they are either incomplete or inaccurate by 1947. Then, the map-readers and so-called regional experts and advisers have been deserting their British jobs – “like rats deserting a sinking ship”. And, finally, there are ideological differences between his own two secretaries, Beaumont and Ayer.

Radcliffe is smart enough to catch on soon enough that he has been assigned a task doomed for failure. Yet, he is given no choice – there are no possible alternatives to Partition and there is no leeway in terms of time allowed due to financial constraints. It is strongly hinted that Mountbatten is pushing hard to get out because he wants his wife, Edwina, safely back home, away from Nehru. Some critics have complained that this downplays the role and influence of Attlee, who had been among the first, during the 1930s Simon Commission, to recommend the partition based on Hindu-Muslim factions. Others have complained that the overplaying of the Edwina-Nehru affair does not ring true because it was such a well-kept secret then. Regardless, the fact remains that Radcliffe had no more than 5 weeks and barely adequate resources to make the impossible happen.

There is a terrific buildup of pressure through each scene to the final, climactic one, when the line has been drawn. Brenton has clearly done his research and tries to stay as true as possible. But, he also gives us surreal, imagined moments like Edwina throwing herself desperately at Nehru wanting to stay behind and be his wife; Jinnah, a devout Muslim, resorting to whiskey; Indian and Pakistani politicians brawling loudly in meetings; the two secretaries sniping at each other; and so on. About this, Brenton said:

Comedy is about characters in misunderstandings, or extreme situations and exchanges, not about gag writing. The pressure the characters were under in India in 1947 produced at times a surreal atmosphere in the arguments and discussions. I think that’s why there is at times a feverish comic sense in the play – even though it is about a terrible time. Tragic-comedy is a fearsome engine.

What is missing, in this pressure cooker, is a depiction of or allusion to how various political leaders had large rallies and meetings and knowingly gave inciting speeches to encourage violent altercations between the religious factions, causing even more damage. That said, perhaps Brenton knew, at the outset, that certain happenings would not scale to fit within his play’s intimate tableau scenes because he uses other means to convey the impact on the country. Most notably, the dialogue between Mountbatten and Radcliffe about “acceptable level of violence” is a chilling reminder that these men knew what they were faced with. Brenton further shows how Radcliffe knows he’s doomed to become the chief architect of a violent, bloody farce and has no choice but to plow on with lines like: “Right, Calcutta is now in India — how many (people) did I just kill?”

Tom Beard, as Cyril Radcliffe, does an excellent job of communicating both the initial ignorance and the growing insight that causes his internal anguish and disillusionment. That Radcliffe eventually refused his salary for the job speaks to the lasting impact of Partition for him personally. Yet, in showing us Radcliffe’s weaknesses, Brenton definitely appeals to our compassion. When questioned about this during the live chat, he responded as follows:

I don’t think I wrote out of compassion for Radcliffe. He never should have taken the job. Partition was a disgrace, handled disgracefully. It is a shameful event in the colonial history of my country. But this is how intelligent, ‘humane’ officials of colonial powers have always thought, from Athens to Rome to Britain to America: they tell themselves they are doing the decent thing. Radcliffe thinks his sense of ‘fairness’ can help him find a way to drive a straight line. But it was impossible. No one thinks they are a villain. Tom Beard, who played Radcliffe, told me that you have to play a character’s weakness as his strength: in Radcliffe’s case his mildness, his ignorance.

…..

There were clues Radcliffe had a dark night of the soul in the bungalow: he refused to accept his fee, he did collect all the papers and draft maps, took them home to England and burnt them. And he refused to say a word, even to his family, about what happened. My playwright’s brain went into overdrive when I discovered these details.

With Nehru (Silas Carson) and Jinnah (Paul Bazely), we get complex and flawed politicians who, even during that difficult time, are not above doing whatever it takes to achieve their objectives. That said, the Nehru-Edwina affair probably did not need to be featured so prominently. While it provides added conflict by imputing certain personal motives to the Mountbatten couple, and even some comic relief in both the Edwina-Nehru and Edwina-Dickie interactions, it seems out of place because even Nehru would have put aside his dalliance during this most critical time.

Speaking of the Mountbattens (Andrew Havill and Lucy Black), their bickering and their simmering rage towards each other and their Partition-driven circumstances in India comes across beautifully. Both the actors portraying these characters do a great job here.

The two secretaries, Beaumont (Brendan Patricks) and Ayer (Nikesh Patel) provide more comic relief than the other characters. Partly, I suppose, Brenton takes more liberties with them as they are partially fictitious. But, they’re also given some more depth and intrigue through their secret information-leaking to Nehru (through Ayer) and Jinnah (through Beaumont).

Where Brenton falls short, I think, is with Gandhi (Tanveer Ghani with a very dodgy accent), who is in only brief 2-3 scenes. It’s not the length of the scenes, though, that bothers me. It’s how he comes across in them. I’m not a Gandhian, but, I do think the overall portrayal is misleading. Firstly, his opposition to Partition does not come across as strongly as Brenton himself has acknowledged. Secondly, the entire plot line of showing him, in each of those scenes, sitting bare-chested and cuddling with the young women in his household, while true, is probably not necessary in the context of this play. Having Gandhi confide in Nehru that he needs the warmth of a body at night (clarifying that it is without sex) when the latter is visiting him with serious news and to take his counsel seems entirely out of character and context. To those who may not understand or know Gandhi’s strong opposition to Partition, those scenes might well communicate something entirely the opposite. Let me clarify that many Hindu Nationalists did believe that Gandhi did not do everything he could have to prevent Partition – this is what he was eventually assassinated for. Still, there are many authentic accounts of a rather frail Gandhi having almost-daily, long and exhausting meetings with many party members and politicians on the issue of Partition during those highly-charged five weeks. Attenborough’s award-winning movie, ‘Gandhi’, shows some of this more accurately.

In the end, the play does give us a little-known perspective from the man who took on the onerous responsibility for what will forever carry his name as ‘The Radcliffe Line’. For that, it is valuable. And, while the directing, acting and stage design are all fairly decent, somehow, the sum of all the parts do not make a greater whole. Then again, sometimes, they don’t need to. It is enough, sometimes, to have a new light slanted briefly on one of those dark recesses of history that we cannot hope to ever fully comprehend.

In India, of course, the Partition has been depicted many times in film (both Bollywood mainstream as well as what is called “parallel cinema”) and theater. In general, though, of the movies or plays that I have come across, I can only say that they have been extremely prejudiced against both Pakistan and Britain. I doubt very much that a balanced portrayal, where blame and compassion are apportioned all round to all concerned, can be possible yet – the wounds have not healed and politicians and nationalists from both countries today keep picking at the scabs and inflicting fresh scars.

Links:

A brief interview with Howard Brenton, the playwright, about the inspiration for the play

Drawing the Line, script

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