Writer: Howard Brenton
Director: Howard Davies
Reviewer: Andy Moseley
Drawing the Line deals with the five weeks Cyril Radcliffe, a British Judge, was given to decide the boundary between India and Pakistan. The length of time would have been ridiculously short even for someone with in-depth knowledge of the region. For someone with no such knowledge, who had never even been to India, it was an almost impossible task, and one that probably shouldn’t have been attempted.
The same could maybe be said about Howard Brenton’s decision to take the five weeks, add in the context of all that went before it, and distil it into a two-hour play, also providing some reflection on the consequences of partition, and parallels to the present day. To say the scope of the play is ambitious is an understatement. Few writers would attempt it, and even fewer would get close to achieving it. Drawing the Line is a partial success in an area where anything less than failure is an achievement.
Against the background of a fantastically evocative set, designed by Tim Hatley, the first act gives a very broad sweep of the history and personal and political motivations that Radcliffe was thrust into when he was handed the job by then Prime Minister, Clement Attlee. The scenes where Muslim and Hindu leaders set out their conflicting claims to Kashmir and other territories sound almost like two neighbours quarrelling over a fence on daytime television. This may or may not be the intention as it becomes clear that everyone had underestimated the size of the task and the extent to which views on what land belonged to what country were deeply entrenched.
The main sub-plot is the relationship between Lady Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru, with Lord Mountbatten’s desire to separate the two by returning to Britain, being the reason why Radcliffe was given such an impossibly short time to complete such a large task. This is where the play begins to move from being just a potted version of history to a study of foibles and frailties that should never have played a major part in a decision that affected millions of people.
As the personal agendas of all the major players come further into play in the second act, we see and share Radcliffe’s increasing frustration as he realises he is the patsy that everyone else will use to escape blame when the inevitable conflict, following his final decision on where to draw the boundary, occurs. Tom Beard gives a fantastic performance as Radcliffe, his initial stilted, stiff-upper-lipped portrayal making his second-act determined but despairing characterisation, all the more powerful and convincing.
Mountbatten is not presented as a sympathetic figure, and Brenton deserves credit for neither shying away from the language of the time or from presenting historical figures in an unflattering light, but Andrew Havill gets beneath the cold, defender of the realm, exterior to eventually present him in a more human light, as a man with weaknesses and vulnerabilities that lead to him believing resolving his personal problems was justification for resorting to political expedience when everything else would tell him otherwise.
Ultimately it feels as if Brenton has attempted too much, and the broad sweep of the first act neither does justice to the subject matter or the people. The second act is more rewarding, bringing to life what is essentially the administrative side of partition, showing how it was driven by individual agendas, and the effect they had on the man with the task of making a decision with consequences that only became clear after accepting the job.