Stage review: Drawing The Line, Hampstead Theatre

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STAGE
Drawing The Line
Hampstead Theatre
★★★★✩

IN A NUTSHELL
Howard Brenton's compelling take on the partition of India is sweeping epic given pin-sharp focus with precision and wit.

REVIEW
The artistic director of Hampstead Theatre, Edward Hall, declares that he "makes no apologies" for staging a heavyweight play of this importance in a season more attuned to tinsel and glitter.

No apologies! Why so defensive? This is a marvel.

I fell upon this compelling story of the partition of India like a drowning man grasping a log. It is only early in December yet the artery-clogging strains of festive hits, pantos and sentimentality is already taking me down.

This is the antidote. This fine work - concise and authoritative - blows away any cobwebs and does that immaculate hat-trick familiar to Howard Brenton's work - it teaches, entertains and respects the audience.

It helps that the story is fascinating and a revelation to many unfamiliar with the history.

Britain, broke and beleaguered after the second world war and finding empire morally insupportable decides to dismantle 200 years of rule in just five weeks.

The Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten (Andrew Havill), is keen for a foreshortened span to whisk his wife (Lucy Black) away from the arms of statesman Nehru (Silas Carson) while Clement Atlee (John Mackay) sees the end of colonialism as a socialist imperative.

Which brings us to Cyril Radcliffe (Tom Beard). Not exactly an unknown, for he was a high-flying legal mind but, still, the Establishment functionary had no knowledge of India, or maps, or politics.

But he was principled and true. And it was to him that fell the task of drawing the line that would create Pakistan.

That line, along religious grounds, was always likely to create a wave of refugees and, depending on where the line was drawn, increase or decrease the scale of the slaughter that would follow.

His disinterest was key - he would be able to show wisdom without passion - but the intoxicating India, beautifully evoked here under the direction of Howard Davies - comes to mangle his steel-trap mind.

It was more than any man could take - and Tom Beard's painfully sympathetic Englishman abroad seems physically to crumble during the course of the play under the pressure of his impossible task.

He is hectored and bullied by seasoned politicians, and religious leaders including Nehru, his Muslim counterpart Jinnah (Paul Bazely) and their acolytes and informers.

Nikesh Patel as Rao Ayer and Brendan Patrick as Christopher Beaumont play the angel and devil on Radcliffe's slumping shoulders as the beleaguered man recognises this is a cynical act of realpolitik, not geography.

There is wit and slapstick in the play ("the rites of back passage") but centre stage - as with Brenton's civil war play 55 Days - is a profound discourse on the practicalities, obligations and timebomb compromises of swift nation building.

It's the little things that mean a lot, say the Indians when they clash with their fellow countrymen - and Radcliffe's little thing is a crayon.

Until Jan 11, Hampstead Theatre, £15-£32, hampsteadtheatre.com.

Picture: Catherine Ashmore

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