Drawing a line to partition Pakistan from the rest of India in just five weeks must have required only a little more hubris than writing a two-hour play on this incendiary subject. But Howard Brenton has boldly had a pop and his ambition in doing so is something like that of Cyril Radcliffe – the decent liberal judge who Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee charged with drawing the border in 1947. He walked into a vipers’ nest of pacifist Hindu Nationalists lead by Gandhi, mainstream moderates lead by Nehru, violent Muslim tribes, sundry silent Sikhs and of course the decadent British rulers.
Radcliffe had never been to India so Brenton may have had a head start in that respect and he surely had more than five weeks to write his play. However as one of the characters reminds us, India is a subcontinent, not a country, so there are inevitable simplifications here, such as why the British had to get out in such a panic. Brenton tries to keep it theatrically dynamic with subversive asides and a cameo from the Hindu god Krishna in blue body paint, but when he tries to set up a serious debate on ethnic divisions his five-way quarrel predictably ends in farce.
None of this means that Howard Davies’s unevenly acted production with beautiful Indian fretwork panels by Tim Hatley is unenjoyable – only that Brenton’s bitten off more than he can chew. Tanveer Ghani’s Gandhi is reduced to a sit down part in two scenes; Silas Carson’s Nehru is an urbane ladies’ man enjoying a perfunctory affair with the Viceroy’s Mrs; and Paul Bazely as the Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah is distinguished as enjoying a glass of scotch. Tom Beard however is a thoroughly good old sock as Radcliffe, a man who becomes sickeningly aware of the folly of his job, but the most interesting character is Andrew Havill as Viceroy Mountbatten – a man boiling with suffocated rage. What’s needed now is a play from the various Indian perspectives.
By Patrick Marmion