I am halfway through my #30plays30days challenge and so far I have seen an eclectic range of shows from venues all over the country….and I haven’t once had trouble getting a seat! In some ways I could get used to this. Yes, it’s a shame to miss the buzzy atmosphere and the communal experience which going to an actual building affords but I’ll take this as second best any day. I’m now on to my third Hampstead Theatre online play, each of which has been, in its own way, a very positive experience. I do hope they will “roll round” some of these productions again so that others can experience their delights.
The big constant across all three productions has been the wonderful sets. Drawing The Line from their 2014 season is no exception, conjuring up India with intricate tracery screens, delicately patterned carpets and gorgeous fabrics courtesy of Tim Hatley’s design. And apart from a brief introductory scene, India is where all the action takes place covering events in 1947 as the country moves towards independence and the partition issue is proving a major headache. To solve it the authorities draft in Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer who had never been further than Paris, to go to India and literally draw lines on a map which will keep all sides of the argument happy – an impossible task. If that were not poisoned chalice enough, he is given just five weeks in which to do it.
From this true individual human story, Howard Brenton has woven an intricate yet epic tapestry incorporating other key figures of the time – the Mountbattens, Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Atlee to name just a few. Yet, cleverly, it is Radcliffe at the centre. His initial relative ignorance means that a history lesson can be given to the audience at the same time as the character and his generally neutral stance helps us to sympathise with both his plight and that of the country at his mercy. In Tom Beard’s performance we are skilfully taken from a stuffed shirt, eager to do a good job Englishman to a man torn apart and a sweaty, hallucinating victim of the system he represents. Unsurprisingly it is British Imperialism that is the real villain here, particularly as represented by Andrew Havill’s imperious Mountbatten. Claiming that he does not wish to interfere or influence in any way it soon becomes evident that is exactly what he wants. The idea that he is doing so in order to get his wife Edwina back to Blighty and away from the charms of Nehru examines an oft repeated rumour about the pair and gives it total credence. Lucy Black and Silas Carson give credibility to this side of the drama, infusing their performances with passion and conviction. Mountbatten’s need to draw a line under the Edwina/Nehru affair thus parallels the lines being drawn on the map – messy, haphazard, repeatedly reconfigured and ultimately satisfactory to nobody.
Paul Bazely’s Jinnah has some good scenes as he tries to convince the world that Pakistan must be brought into being and the Gandhi of Tanveer Ghani avoids the perceived stereotypes of the iconic figure. Generally, though, the various political figures are perhaps painted with too broad brushstrokes and everything comes down to men shouting in rooms far too often. And make no mistake, this is a play about the men. Abigail Cruttenden is woefully underused as Antonia Radcliffe the forced to stay at home wife of the central figure.
The late Howard Davies directs the play with an eye for the historic sweep of the piece but is also good at bringing things down to intimate moments and showing how they shape bigger events. I suspect that having to watch the play through a camera lens meant that some of the telling detail got lost but, of its type, it was well done – indeed all of the Hampstead streamed productions so far have successfully captured the action for a home audience.
Having just recently been to India and stayed in Calcutta – one of the hotly disputed areas – and read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, central to which is the subcontinent’s independence, this was for me a timely revival of Brenton’s play and one which shed even more light on a fascinating set of circumstances. And the fact that I could watch it while consuming a beef madras and taka dhal only served to give it extra resonance.