We talk to Howard Brenton, writer of Hampstead’s hit plays 55 Days and #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, about Sophocles, the intimacy of theatre and the inspiration behind his new play Drawing the Line.
Have you ever been to India before? And if so, did your trip inspire and inform you when writing Drawing the Line? In what way?
I had the idea for the play while visiting India for the first time in 2009. My wife and I did the tour of the Rajastan ‘golden triangle’ then we went south and journeyed around Kerala. I had a conversation in a shop in Cochin. The shop keeper’s family were Hindu, his family had fled from Kashmir in 1947 at the time of partition. Back in England I asked: ‘so how was the border drawn?’ The answer was extraordinary. It was done by Judge Cyril Radcliffe, who knew nothing about India and nothing about maps. Lengthy negotiations about a border had broken down in 1946. So Radcliffe was sent by the then Labour Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, to do the job in six weeks, with the date of British withdrawal fixed. Afterwards Radcliffe refused to accept his fee and burnt all the papers about the drawing of the border in his garden and, throughout a long and eminent career, never spoke a word about his experience in India. My playwright’s brain began to go into over drive …what a character, what did he go through, a decent liberal man confident in his sense of ‘fairness’, thrown into that bewildering and violent situation in 1947 India?
Were there any moments that you were particularly excited to dramatise when you first thought of focussing on this story?
One of the most exciting challenges was writing scenes for Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League and the founder of Pakistan. I’ve long admired him. He was formidable, a deep thinker with a very dry sense of humour and perhaps afflicted by a melancholic nature, a lion of a leader. He had a vision of Pakistan as an inclusive, open, Islamic democracy that is very relevant today. It was a tragedy that he died a year after independence.
It’s early days still, but can you offer any insight into what we can expect from Howard Davies’ production?
Howard is a master of epic story telling and getting passionate, detailed performances from his actors. And it’s going to look stunning.
What do you think or hope the audience will learn or find surprising in watching this story unfold?
I hope people will understand the passion and brilliance of the leaders in India, particularly Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi, great men faced with a chaotic and dangerous situation which they feared would get out of hand. It did, with terrible consequences, in the days after British withdrawal. Some estimate a million people died as Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and people of other faiths separated and refugees fled both ways over Radcliffe’s border.
Many of your plays have tackled political upheaval – is this the playwright’s job to present these moments to the public or more to do with personal taste?
It’s always been the playwright’s job to tackle moments of great upheaval, hasn’t it? From the fall of Thebes in Sophocles to medieval mystery plays with the Last Judgement on a cart, to Shakespeare writing about the death of the Roman Republic…
What do you think theatre can do that another medium can’t in telling this particular story?
Theatre can get to the intimate moment, the second a decision has to be made, the physical presence of fear, love or sudden humour and hysteria in a crisis. Oddly … it can be more real that cinema or tv or a novel.