Pros: Music and set nicely conjure up the subcontinent.
Cons: Problems with pacing.
The backdrop for Child of the Divide is a map scarred with a fuzzy red line. It is 1947 and this is the newly-created border that young Pali must cross with his parents and baby sister; one of millions of families fleeing sectarian violence on both sides in the aftermath of partition.
As you might expect, this is a moving story. It zooms in on the individual suffering brought on by forced mass migration: the grief of loss, of abandonment, of displacement. It shows, on the one hand, how superficial are the tokens and practices that mark us out as belonging to one culture or another, and on the other hand how deep a barrier to integration those tokens and practices can be.
We are thrust straight into the pandemonium of flight in the first scene. The family rushes to board a truck carrying refugees, and in the chaos Pali gets separated from the others and left behind – a vulnerable Hindu boy in the newly-minted Muslim state of Pakistan. Despite the appearance of urgency, a lot of breathless dialogue and the sound of gunfire in the background, there isn’t the tension one might expect in these opening scenes. Characters pause to voice their inner thoughts by way of explanation and comment on the political situation, and these rather poetic interludes undermine the sense of panic.
As he is chivvied out of his home, Pali alludes to the toys and friends that he’s leaving behind, but this 0-60 intro means we never actually get to see his pre-exodus normality, and we don’t get a chance to place the characters. Admittedly, audibility was compromised in some parts of our audience by an entire row of children who munched and crinkled their way through bags of crisps for the first ten minutes, but it really was quite challenging in the early stages of the show to catch every rushed line and work out exactly what was going on.
Pali hangs out with a group of urchins, some Hindu, some Muslim. These scenes of children playing together outdoors, free of adult supervision and working through their own prejudices, are compelling and rather touching. In tandem with Pali’s story, we gradually learn more about each of these vulnerable yet battle-hardened children. But while each backstory was interesting, I was conscious of not having been at all curious about them before – perhaps because each character just hadn’t been given enough time to make an impression.
The production has a charmingly simple aesthetic. The map-printed backdrop extends into a floor covering that conjures up dusty red earth and with a simple fold becomes the banks of a river. But such a simple set doesn’t help much with the frequent changes of location from India to Pakistan, so surtitles are projected onto the backdrop. This feels like a bit of a cheat, and not always entirely helpful; given how fleetingly the characters were introduced, ‘Mataji and Pataji’s house’ might have been more helpful than ‘Kaushalya and Manohar’s house’.
As an introduction to the twentieth century story of India and Pakistan, Child of the Divide is great. It keeps things simple and tells a moving story that anyone can relate to, even if they are lucky enough never to have been near a refugee camp. But its emotional punch is lessened by poor pacing; with a gentler introduction and more measured delivery, our investment in the characters might be much greater, and indeed our understanding of the events rather clearer.
Author: Sudha Bhuchar
Director: Jim Pope
Box Office: 020 8543 4888
Booking Link: https://polkatheatre.com/event/child-of-the-divide/
Booking Until: 15 October 2017