Nehru, Silas Carson, kissing Edwina, Lucy Black, in the play ‘Drawing the Line’
Having watched the first half hour of writer Howard Brenton and director Howard Davies’ critically acclaimed play ‘Drawing the Line’ I am unsure of what to make of it.
First, a quick background. The play opens with British Prime Minister Clement Atlee summoning Judge Cyril Radcliffe to entrust him the task of drawing a line across the map of India to partition it. Radcliffe is completely clueless about India, never having visited and that is seen as his main strength; of someone who can take a detached, unemotional view.
My first problem is having to visually adjust to a filmed play as opposed to a film. Since live plays cannot be edited in terms of their visual logic, transitions feel awkward and stilted. The problem with filmed plays is that the expressions, gestures and body language of the actors are necessarily meant for a live theater audience at some distance from the stage and not for camera close-ups. They have to be somewhat accentuated and exaggerated for the benefit of the audience inside the theater. Facial subtlety and gestural nuance are possible only to an extent in a staged play. When you film that play using various cameras for the benefit of those who may be watching it on television or computer screen like I was, those very requirements of a staged play come across as highly contrived.
But that is the least of ‘Drawing the Line’s problems. The first 30 minutes felt like a play put up by 9th grade students that their parents crashed as actors like a flash mob. Considering the epic and portentous backdrop of the play—it is about how India’s partition was effected before its independence in 1947—the premise has brilliant inherent possibilities. However, there is something strangely unconvincing about the play up to the point I saw. It is as if the writer and director have compiled a series of disparate events which may be engaging in themselves but together they look disjointed. I also attribute this to the fact that I am just too used to the movies.
Quite apart from that, the portrayal of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi is ludicrous. In the early scenes Nehru comes across as a hormone-fueled teenager who just wants to get it on with Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of India’s last Viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten, in various corners of the palace, particularly the “broom cupboard”.
Nehru is in the viceroy’s palace (now India’s Rashtrapati Bhavan) to discuss something as serious as the impending partition of India and yet finds time to engage in what one could only surmise to be a quickie. Check out this exchange between Nehru, played by Silas Carson, and Edwina, played by Lucy Black. Nehru walks in with an aide of his when Edwina breezes past him grabbing his hand suggestively.
Nehru: Edwina…we can’t…
Edwina: Shut up
Nehru: This is unseemly
Edwina: But lovely
Nehru: Oh god..
The two then kiss.
Nehru: Is this the corridor with a broom cupboard?
There is something rather forced about the lines. For instance these between the two:
Edwina: Judge Cyril Radcliffe is an assassin sent to murder our country
Nehru: You really do think of India as your country, don’t you?
Edwina: I have fallen in love with you and you are India
Nehru: No, no Edwina, you must not talk like that. No one is India
Edwina: You are when you are in my bed
Nehru: Or in your broom cupboard
I am not even going to talk about how India in general and those who admire Nehru in particular might react to this portrayal, including the kiss. Perhaps not very much except one must remember that 2014 is an election year in India and Nehru’s Congress Party has been considerably weakened. But there isn’t much there.
My problem is more trivial. Carson as Nehru is just too tall. Nehru was 5’ 10”. Carson is just too inordinately vertical. Speaking of bodily dimensions let me come to Gandhi, played by Tanveer Ghani. If Nehru is inordinately vertical Gandhi is inordinately hunky (see the picture above). Look at his shoulders. They look as if they could carry the entire palace on one of them and the burden of a new India on the other. He has tires for a stomach too, bicycle tires but tires nevertheless. Also, Gandhi speaks in an accent that swings between that of Apu of the Simpsons and Gandhi of Ben Kingsley, the original Gandhi.
Perhaps I am being gratuitously harsh but these are my first impressions. They could well change and become more charitable. I do applaud The Guardian newspaper for streaming the play live and keeping it available free of charge for 72 hours.