Browse reviews

Fringe Online 2020

Drawing the Line

Hampstead Theatre and The Guardian

Genre: Drama, Fringe Online Theatre, Historical, Mainstream Theatre, Online Theatre, Political, Theatre

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Festival: ,

Low Down

Directed by Howard Davies, Designed by Tim Hatley, Costume Jack Galloway, Lighting Rick Fisher, composer Nicki Wells, Sound Mike Walker, Casting Suzanne Crowley and Gilly Poole, Assistant Director Will Wrightson, CSM Robyn Hardy, Costume Supervisor Sabrina Cuniverto, Wardrobe Josie Thomas Live streamed January 11th 2014. Till April 20th.

Nina Raine’s Tiger Country streams from April 20-27th.


As Hampstead Theatre streams its fourth and up-till-now final free production – Howard Brenton’s 2013 Drawing the Line – we’re alerted to a fifth: Nina Raine’s superb Tiger Country about the NHS streams from April 20th. Timely. Let’s hope for more.

It’s not often fall-guys create or rather split two nations in six weeks. A man tasked with rushing through the Partition of India who knows noting of cartography is to scar a red line of mayhem and death wherever he decides it should fall.

Tom Beard’s Judge Cyril Radcliffe – lately from the Minister of Information – is abruptly tasked by Prime Minister Clement Attlee (John Mackay) to ‘draw a line’: between India and Pakistan, the Pakistan that Muslims say is everywhere and nowhere, but the British assign to a place: a parting Greek gift. But as we hear several times, ‘it’s the little things that kill.’ Like a British jeep’s arrival bringing a simple telegram causing death by rioting. Slicing a border through inflicts rather more.

Like the slightly unfair 1966 poem by Auden on him Radcliffe not only knows as his wife Antonia (Abigail Cruttenden) says ‘bugger all’ about India, or maps. One tension’s in fact division of husband and wife, physically first as the increasingly agonized figure Beard makes of Radcliffe realizes only he can absorb the absurdities of the British body politic. Things run through him too, physically and psychically: Antonia’s disturbed. And through another couple.

‘Stay a virgin’ the realpolitik Andrew Havill’s Mountbatten warns Radcliffe I steely jollity and Edinburgh-like crassness. ‘Too many come out and get thoroughly rogered by this country’. He’s talking more personally than Radcliffe knows. Lucy Black’s Edwina, Lady Mountbatten is partial to India for good reasons, more direct than her husband’s ‘flagpole’ pretence at impartiality. And one of Radliffe’s advisors, Nikesh Patel’s Rao V D Ayer would agree. It falls to the other advisor, another Brit, Christopher Beaumont’s Brendan Patricks, a wannabe but perceptive T. E. Lawrence – to bat for Pakistan. The absurdity of cricketing metaphors is one of this play’s ferocious rejections of easy imagery. Rao and Beaumont, more than old friends, register another fissure. brought by illness and the absurd timetable.

Still charming pragmatist Nehru (Silas Carson), head of the Hindu Congress Party, declares partition the only viable route to a democratic India. If Nehru’s consummate prepared to use wily tactics and swallow the crass comments of the ignorant Radcliffe in order to get what he wants.

So it’s shrewd to make Tanveer Gani’s Gandhi not only a secondary actor but as he invites ‘irrelevant’ in his refusal to act. It’s not saintliness. Brenton’s clear every Indian leader spits fury: Ghandi inveighs at a ‘vivisection’ of his multi-faith sub-continent, prophesying he too should be vivisected, only the most visceral of such images, kinning him with Radcliffe and his runs. Gani’s performance glints with the lawyer whose adamantine will shines at the moment he seems withdrawn into vatic utterance.

If Nehru quotes Blake (‘driving a cart over the bones of the dead’ flattering Radcliffe’s intelligence), Paul Baezely’s Muhammad Ali Jinnah solves a Times crossword on a late Yeats poem, his mind moving on furious silence; that impresses Radcliffe too. Baezely’s more passionate ice and cut-through contrasts with Nehru’s easier winning-side charm. Helming the Muslim League Jinnah has less unanimity amongst his team. Politically he’s only got Beaumont testily on side as informant, as opposed to India’s Rao and the Mountbattens. At each meeting tempers fray. As Jinnah tells Radcliffe, if civilised men inside a room barely contain hatred, what chance this not killing half a million?

And – Brenton points out acutely though Jinnah – the British generally identify more with the ’pretty’ Hindu religion, not an ‘iron grey’ militant Islam.

2,000 ethnic groups riven by 300 years of occupation and disturbance might have managed a united India ten years previously. Mountbatten blandly sets 100,000 deaths as ‘an acceptable level of violence’ which Beaumont quietly and rightly deems a gross under-estimate.

In fact that line divides the Mountbattens too, with the astounding reveal of the affair between Nehru and Edwina (more enduring than even this play suggests). Edwina charges Mountbatten with rushing Partition to hoik her from her lover. In fact Britain’s going bankrupt: not even providing American air-conditioning for Radcliffe, nearly killing him. Carson and Black’s passion and knowledge of its boundaries as they play for the highest stakes is touching and powerful, Edwina every time commanding Nehru not to ‘smarm’ reassurance.

The one thing all sides cheerfully agree on is when Radcliffe’s taken ill with Delhi belly: flushing through’s infinitely better than blocking, the British Beaumont Radcliffe solution, and how typically tight-arsed. The body politic is also as Radcliffe says, ‘scar tissue left by the empire’ flaring in the sun.

Radcliffe’s sympathetic agon moves from stuffed-shirt patsy, dropping cricket metaphor as he realises his duty is more than naïve, but utterly compromised. Beard whose last role this was before his death in 2015, harrows out Radcliffe’s realization through reading the Bhagavad-Gita and hallucinatory meetings with Krishna that his karma is indeed violence, it’s what he does. Beard’s stripping-away his stuffed-shirt, his assurances of British duty frays both towards sensitivity and snapping-point where old reflexes kick in.

Swift dissolves are hallmarks of another company member who hardly survived this production: director Howard Davies, fluid in suggesting a Mike Bartlett-like a boxing in of Radcliffe, girt with latticed screens, a flexible spare design Tim Hatley allows to express genteel rooms till the last moments; all blent with Rick Fisher’s simmering then glaring lighting, costumes by Jack Galloway, Nicki Wells’ composition, and atmospheric spare sound from Mike Walker simmering up to riots suggesting the wickerwork fragility of this tinderbox.

There’s impressive work from Mackay’s precise lawyer-mind Attlee, politically aware of who he’s shafting. Patricks’ sardonic Beaumont is the most engaged of all Brits: forensic, tragically knowing, if still ‘blocking’; all too aware the second round of history as he tells his friend is bloody farce.

There’s fine work in small roles taken by David Annen’s Lord Pethick and Lawrence, Simon Negra, Neil D’Souza, Peter Singh (most notably a blue Lord Krishna) and as Dalit Women Shalini Peirs and Salma Hoque, Photographer Rez Kempton.

Davies drives the ferocious legacy of Brenton’s exposition in just 110 minutes. It’s superbly cogent work, perhaps Brenton’s finest play of recent years. Davies ensures too the pitch is right, tempers flaring everywhere amidst jittery laughter and small revelations of character in plot-twists. All as this livid scoring across Gandhi’s breast – as he puts it – is poised to erupt. And that scar does in fire, a terrific final image in the tradition of last-moment coups so much a hallmark of this house. Terrific, a harrowing education.