Monday 16 May 2022

Theatre Review: The Father and the Assassin (National Theatre, Olivier)


Playing Nathuram Godse, the man who murdered Gandhi in 1948, in Anupama Chandrasekhar's exciting new play The Father and the Assassin, Shubham Saraf rises out of the Olivier stage to tell his character's story in retrospect. He does so with witty, audience-implicating self-consciousness and a contemporary awareness that includes references to Richard Attenborough's "fawning film"... and Brexit. 

In this way, Chandrasekhar makes The Father and the Assassin not merely a memory play but also a postmodern, beyond-the-grave reminiscence. Avoiding the reverential tone and ponderousness of the aforementioned Attenborough film - which Pauline Kael famously claimed had her leaving the cinema feeling "the way the British must have when they left India - exhausted and relieved" - The Father and the Assassin has a surprising formal playfulness, but one that doesn't detract from the seriousness of its concerns. 

It's a play about radicalisation, about colonial oppression and Indian in-fighting, about violence versus non-violence, and, especially, about hero worship curdling into hatred. (The Hindu Godse started out as a Gandhi acolyte before becoming an opponent when he came to feel that Gandhi had made too many concessions to the Muslim minority.)

It's also, modishly but persuasively, a play about gender. The loss of several children led Godse's parents to raise him as a girl, a fact that, Chandrasekhar suggests, resulted in identity issues that reflect India's wider struggles. Godse is seen seeking out father figures: first in Gandhi (here presented as the first man to call Godse "son") and then in Vinayak Savarkar, whose anti-Muslim, Hindu-nationalist stance proves a fatally radicalising influence, and who in one scene schools Godse in "masculine" behaviour. 

The play's narration-dependent form results in dialogue that's sometimes something of an exposition blitz. But Indhu Rubasingham's production never feels fusty, zipping the action along at a clip, as Rajha Shakiry's flexible dusty design moves us from prison to seashore, backwards and forwards in time, with filmic fluidity. 

The charismatic Saraf commands the auditorium with such casual ease that he might be standing in a living room. Announcing his tale as "a potboiler," starting his narrative proudly and confidently ("Once you know my story you'll celebrate me!"), he becomes compellingly disquieted as  his version of events starts to be challenged by other conflicting voices and hauntings in his head. 

Equally vivid acting comes from Ayesha Dharker and Tony Jayawardena as the parents; from Sagar Arya as Savarkar; and from Paul Bazely, whose brilliantly fresh performance embodies Gandhi without resorting to cliché. I remember seeing Bazely on stage as Aziz in Shared Experience's adaptation of A Passage to India about 20 years ago, and there's a touch of that company's emphasis on expressionistic movement to the ensemble work here. An episode depicting Partition strife looks a bit awkward, and the lengthy dialogue exchange that precedes Godse's violent act doesn't convince, either. But this remains a highly entertaining and enlightening evening that succeeds in balancing epic sweep with emotional intimacy. 

The Father and the Assassin is booking at the National Theatre until 18 June. Further information here

Related Reading: 

Review of Hex 

Top 10 Theatre Productions 2021

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