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Affairs of state and heart

Affairs of state and heart

New play on Partition mixes the personal and the political to dramatic effect…

THERE’s something in the idea that ‘Pakistan got shafted’ and ‘it was mutilated at birth’ when it was created as the country that was carved out of the land known only as India at the time.

The private dramas also behind Partition have probably rarely been handled so adeptly or so entertainingly with splashes of healthy good black humour too.

Howard Brenton’s new play, “Drawing The Line”, at the Hampstead Theatre, takes us behind the scenes in 1947 and homes in on the story of judge Cyril Radcliffe (brilliantly reprised by Tom Beard), the man handed the job of creating two new countries and leaving behind an ‘honourable legacy’ for the curtain call on British rule in Imperial India.

Tim Hatley’s set has to be one of the best ever created for such a stage, putting us right into the India of Partition, and Howard Davies’ direction makes a trio of talent that works well.

Controversially perhaps, the play also shows that Edwina Mountbatten (Lucy Black) enjoyed a deeply passionate and stimulatingly adulterous relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru (Silas Carson), India’s first prime minister to be; depicts Mahatma Gandhi (Tanveer Ghani) as a man with a keen and slightly unnerving interest in young women.

And in another scene likely to unsettle the moralists, Lord Krishna (Peter Singh) is depicted extolling advice to Radcliffe on his task, in a manner not too dissimilar to his portrayed counsel in the Hindu holy book, “The Bhagavad Gita”.

Yet the central themes rise above these and are really what make the play such an engrossing and powerful romp. To some it might come across as ‘Downton Abbey, Raj style’.

That may seem something of a trite verdict, but it isn’t meant to be – for this is drama as it should be, like life itself: awkward, difficult to decipher (sometimes), full of sub-plots and private emotional agendas with no one quite sure what the other is up to or what their real goals are – but more tellingly here, played out on a huge canvass, where the fate of millions can turn on an idea or a thought.

In the end, as Brenton later revealed in a Q&A with Indian journalists after the play on Monday (December 9), he asked, did it really come down to Gandhi’s fervent opposition to Partition in the dictum: “Die or live together”.

Brenton said he had also wanted to reassess the role Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Paul Bazely) had played.

Still regarded in Pakistan with great affection and known as the father of the nation there, in India, he is widely reviled as a man who put ambition above everything to become the first prime minister of a newly created entity, Pakistan.

“I feel he has been demonised in this country,” said Brenton, who is one of Britain’s best-known and most widely admired playwrights. “I became very interested in Jinnah, there was a melancholic edge to it, he was really very sick.

“He knew his great vision of an Islamic democracy was slipping away from him.”

That much comes through in the play, which does a brilliant job of showing just what an impossible task Radcliffe had, and that he too was ‘shafted’ by his political masters, primarily Labour prime minister Clement Atlee and the King’s representative in India, and the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten (Andrew Havill).

Radcliffe was decent, honourable and tried to be fair – that may be sugar coating it a little, but because it was Brenton’s entry point into the whole drama, as he indicated, it’s inevitable that Radcliffe has perhaps the most sympathetic treatment.

“I followed the white Briton of the play and I was following the reactions to him. My terms of reference had to be the British perspective and I followed Radcliffe into the story,” explained Brenton.

And this most English of Englishmen, Radcliffe, is portrayed as the voice of reason, while the natives continue to get uppity about the whole issue – but Brenton also does suggest the British were not without wiles or guile. It’s only that it worked in India’s favour, not Pakistan’s.

We see Edwina and Mountbatten himself implore Radcliffe to put certain cities into India, when really they had no remit or authority to do so; and it could be that they too – like Radcliffe, had gone native – Edwina obviously so, for being in love with “a darkie” or a “w*g” as Mountbatten offensively and crushingly puts it to his rather feisty, independent-spirited wife at one heated point.

Why else would Brenton have Radcliffe read “The Bhagavad Gita” and seek Lord Krishna’s advice?

Brenton still manages to bring more of a neutral and dispassionate perspective on this eventful drama and its central characters.

Mountbatten, often derided by British historians, while more sympathetically treated by Indian ones, is shown with depth – warts and all.

“I had twinges of sympathy for Mountbatten. No one in life thinks they are a s**t and you can’t dramatise someone who thinks they are a s**t and that made me sympathetic towards him in the end,” revealed Brenton.

On the Nehru-Edwina affair, Brenton as a dramatist, has few doubts it wasn’t physical. History’s judgement is more circumspect, appreciating the two were good friends but perhaps no more.

“Imaginatively of course, they slept together,” replied Brenton to a question about whether the relationship really was physical. “You can’t stage scenes where – perhaps – two people are sleeping together. They both had affairs, Nehru was a widower and Edwina had many passionate affairs.”

On Gandhi, Brenton raised the spectre that Muslims were alienated by the way he behaved around women.

“Muslims see this picture of him when he went around on his speaking tours and they did not like the fact that he always had two women either side of him with his arms around them and they did not like that and also his thing of sleeping with women for warmth and then seeing if he could control his own desire – that is well known.”

Indeed it is, and this subject is only one of the smaller themes in “Drawing The Line”.

Essentially, as Brenton himself said, this play is a study of leadership at a very crucial moment in the history of the subcontinent.

“I was confident writing about it, about the theme of leaders under pressure at moments of terrific change and about leaders who are struggling to control their own people.”

He was first drawn to writing about the subject following a nine-month treatment of the novel, “Sacred Games”, by Vikram Chandra, for a film adaptation in 2008-2009 and then a personal holiday in India.

“My wife and I went as tourists and we kept bumping into people who said ‘my grandfather still has the keys to a house in Lahore’… and so who drew this map? I didn’t know and the dramatist brain went into overdrive.”

Picture: Nikesh Patel (advisor Rao VD Ayer), Tom Beard (Radcliffe), Brendan Patricks (advisor, Christopher Beaumont)
© Catherine Ashmore

  • “Drawing the Line”, Howard Brenton, Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London NW3 3EU, until January 11
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Written by Asian Culture Vulture