Review: Drawing the Line, Hampstead Theatre via livestreaming

“When blood is spilt, disputes between people, nations, religions become all but impossible to solve”

A complete Brucie bonus to start off the year was the unexpected announcement that Howard Brenton’s new play Drawing the Line – a sell-out success at the Hampstead – would have its final performance live-streamed on t’internet. I hadn’t booked for the show as something had to give over Christmas and New Year and so the chance to catch up with it for free, albeit on the screen of my laptop, was one I was glad to take.

The play is set in the final days of the empire, as the British are beating a hasty retreat from the subcontinent but are determined to partition the land, and its diverse people, into India and Pakistan. The job of, quite literally, drawing the line falls to archetypal Englishman and judge Cyril Radcliffe who is shipped off to somewhere he has never been before, to accomplish what turns out to be a fiendishly complex assignment. 

For the concept of nation-building is no tidy affair, especially in a region filled with different ethnicities and religions, and though the British administration have imposed an intolerably tight deadline, Radcliffe is determined to do as good a job as he can. But he has to face the anger that has built over years of colonial oppression and the competing factional interests who are desperately trying to make sure the line falls the right way for them.

Brenton is one of our most skilled writers, especially when it comes to bringing potentially dusty historical subjects to life, and so it proves once again here. The cast intelligently interrogate the honourable compassion at the heart of Radcliffe’s effort, expose the misguided good intentions and indeed the naked self-interest of so many of the interested parties. He also keeps a great sense of clarity to his writing, no history lessons needed here to understand just what is going on.

Even through the distance imposed by the camera, the performance level of Howard Davies’ production remained deeply affecting. Tom Beard’s Radcliffe is an ideal central figure, gently baffled by the situation he finds himself in and taking the audience with him as he battles to see a way through to the future. Silas Carson’s sinuous Nehru s excellent, dignified in his pragmatism and movingly human as exposed by his affair with Mountbatten’s wife, a sensitive turn from Lucy Black. 

People do like to debate whether filmed theatre heralds the end of days, but it does strike me as a rather narrow-minded point of view. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that enterprises such as these are going to replace live theatre, they never could and they are not intended to. Rather, they expand a production’s reach in ways a venue could never meet and it will be fascinating to hear from the Hampstead how many countries across the world tuned in to watch this really rather good play. 

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