Little did the Victorians suspect that by 1945, not only would a Socialist UK government be in power, but that the British Empire would be decolonised, leaving the respective countries of the Commonwealth to govern themselves. However, whether it was in Africa, the Middle East or Asia, the same problems occured with centuries-old grievances reigniting between different local factions, with no hope of reconciliation in sight. Such a problem occured in India in the wake of the Second World War…
In Howard Brenton’s play, the impossible task of dividing the culturally-diverse region to everyone’s satisfaction is explored. Knowing the difficultly of this task, a neutral judge, Cyrill Radcliffe (Tom Beard) is selected by the powers-that-be to conduct the arduous process of drafting a border. Its purpose is not only to define the perameters of the incumbent republic, but potenially also pave the way for a separate Muslim dominion on the Indian subcontinent. As someone with zero experience in these matters, Radcliffe has his work cut out for him. But even with counsel from British aide Christopher Beaumont (Brendan Patricks) and Rao VD Ayer (Nikesh Patel), who represent the interests of a divided or united subcontinent respectively, every solution Radcliffe suggests is dismissed out of hand. Thus the maxim is proved correct: You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not please all of the people all of the time.
While the play concerns Britain, India and millions of people, the respective arguments and details are never arid. Rather, the motives are personified by the individual characters. For the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, (Andrew Havill) it is the one chance to do something right (career-wise) in his life and to have a modicum of control. If India can’t be kept in the British Empire, he can at least make sure that India doesn’t implode when the British withdraw from the region.
The play also addresses the notion that the British perception of the local religions played a part in who was favoured or feared – a belief expressed with conviction by Jinna (Paul Bazeley), the leader of India’s Muslim League. But as Nehru (Silas Carson) the leader of the Indian National Congress is having an affair with Edwina (Lucy Black), Mountbatten’s wife, the rationale for decisions by all parties are perhaps muddled. Would the speedy appointmment of Nehru as Prime Minister guarantee an end to the affair? Also, fiscal demands-aside, wouldn’t a transitional period of withdrawal minimise the likelihood of riots flaring up?
While only appearng for a short period, Antonia Radcliffe (Abigail Cruttenden) and her husband’s willingness (or not) to talk to her is pivotal to showing the pressure he is under, unable to pretend even to her that he’s ‘coping’. Speaking of appeareances, there is a marked difference between the sage-like persona of Gandhi’s reputation and the flawed man presented here. While tenacity is a trait that’s always been associated with Gandhi, his unwillingness to meet with Radcliffe or offer practical counsel to assauge the nationwide rioting marks him as someone alien to realpolitik.
The play’s strength is that it succinctly conveys why there were objections and reservations to the courses of action proposed. While historically a ‘laissez-faire‘ approach is favoured by the Establishment, for Radcliffe who has his own ‘dark night of the soul’, even taking no action will have dire consequences and not a luxury available to him. Of course, the real history lesson here is that the people who are responsible for society’s woes are seldom the same ones to rectify them. Even then, any attempts to do so are judged against ‘ideological purity’. This leads to ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…’
© Michael Davis 2020
Drawing The Line streams on the Hampstead Theatre’s website until 19th April.