There are plays which are technically superb but never quite get into top gear, while others that are deeply flawed (John Osborne's are a good example) grab the audience by the guts and won't let go. This new one by Howard Brenton at the Hampstead Theatre is an example of the first sort. Written with Brenton's characteristic skill, it plucks out from the pages of the the history books a largely forgotten but crucial person whose decisions had enormous consequences.
By the time Cyril Radcliffe, a judge who knew nothing about India, was picked by the Attlee government to go to Delhi and decide the frontiers that would divide India and Pakistan, the train was already hurtling down the tracks. Wherever he drew the fateful line on the map during his rushed five-week assignment, it would be bound to spark mass killings. 'I am what the Americans call a patsy,' he exclaims. It's a brilliant theme for a play about a traumatic historical episode; Brenton stumbled on it while on holiday in India, and instinctively saw Radcliffe's story as a great subject for drama.
I'm not going to start judging whether the play is fair or unfair to Radcliffe, the Mountbattens, Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi because I don't know enough about the period. Mountbatten emerges as a hypocritical colonial stuffed shirt, first telling Radcliffe he cannot as Viceroy influence his work, and then at the last minute intervening to twist the frontier to India's advantage. Did he succumb to pressure from his wife Edwina, who was having an affair with Nehru? Was he trying to win her back, as Brenton suggests? Is it plausible for Mountbatten to describe Nehru in a flash of anger as 'your darkie' and to use the word 'wog'? I doubt it, but any dramatist has licence to invent. What bothers me more is that the story skims the surface. Howard Davies, who also directed Brenton's 55 Days at Hampstead (the trial and execution of Charles I) draws out some excellent performances from a large cast, but they don't quite have enough to get their teeth into in the way that Mark Gatiss did with Charles I. There are bigger historical themes lurking behind the story of Partition than emerge in this play. Brenton, by deciding early on not to create any real villains or heroes, has ended up by making one of the bloodiest tragedies of the 20th century into a somewhat bloodless play.