BWW Review: DRAWING THE LINE, Hampstead Theatre Live Stream
Empires are born in blood - and they die in blood too. The only question is how much?
In the brave new world of 1947, socialist zeal rushing through the corridors of Whitehall, Cyril Radcliffe, a judge who had never been east of Paris, is despatched to Viceroy House in Delhi to carve two new states from the dying embers of the British Raj - India and Pakistan. He gathered the evidence, listened to the arguments and concluded that there was no right answer. Worse, there wasn't even a good answer, just lots and lots of bad answers, the kind of bad that leaves hundreds of thousands dead. He drew his line.
It's a tragic, if fascinating, story, the fallout from which resonates 73 years forward to today, not least for the families, HIndu and Muslim, (and Sikh and Jain and so many more) who look across borders to lands their ancestors called their own - in Kashmir most obviously. I need not add that both states hold nuclear weapons.
This is history that needs telling, but it's ever so heavy on exposition (nothing about the subcontinent lends itself to brevity) and Howard Brenton's script holds nothing back when a political or religious position requires explanation. Characters sound a little like an audio version of Wikipedia at times, the speeches not just reserved for the masses, but delivered over chai on the terrace. Did anyone, even then, really talk like that?
It's a fault I could just about forgive - though I've seldom heard quite so much stuff that I knew in any play - but did it have to be so loud? Almost everyone shouts almost every line, the late Howard Davies taking his directing cues from a fractious night in the Queen Vic. The authenticity of the audience coughs picked up on the 2013 live stream has a quaint charm that gives way to a certain relief, as noisy rage blazes forth from the stage.
Tom Beard (reminding me quite a lot of Colin Firth) vests his judge with good intentions and decency that leads to paralysing guilt as he realises that he's just a patsy to allow the Crown to stand aside as the inevitable mayhem ensues. Andrew Harvill's Mountbatten is ineffectual, more interested in the affair his wife Edwina (Lucy Black) is conducting with the charming, but devious leader of the Hindu faction, Jawaharlal Nehru (a smirking Silas Carson). Mountbatten seldom gets a good press.
As leader of the Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Paul Bazely has the least excitable character to play (all the aides, regardless of which side they are on, are constantly on the point of a stand up row) and benefits from it. Poor Abigail Cruttenden does what she can with the part of Radcliffe's wife, but it's a role even more underwritten than that of Lady Mountbatten.
Maybe the intensity of the speechifying and the great chunks of exposition worked better inside a theatre rather than down a stream, but, for all the technical accomplishment involved in one of the best captures of a staged play I've seen, it's all a bit too much. And it's done rather better in the 2017 film, Viceroy's House.