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The Father and the Assassin, National Theatre review ★★★★★
With The Father and the Assassin, now showing at the National Theatre, playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar (When the Crows Visit) has achieved that rare thing: a play that’s simultaneously amusing and entertaining but doesn’t trivialise its momentous subject matter: the decades leading to India’s partition and independence in 1947, and the role played by Mohandas Gandhi and the man who would murder him, Nathuram Godse.
The story, described by the playwright as a ‘why-dunnit,’ is told by Godse himself, played with engaging verve by Shubham Saraf (A Suitable Boy) in a tour de force performance that sees him on stage throughout the play’s two-hours-plus duration.
Godse wants his side of the story told. Addressing the audience in an effort to get them onside he describes himself as ‘a journalist, patriot, Indian’ and sets about explaining why he felt it necessary to murder the father of the nation, Gandhi, played by a rather too tall, but otherwise impressive Paul Bazely.
Paul Bazely (Mohandas Gandhi) and company in The Father and the Assassin at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner
The Father and The Assassin blends historical fact and imaginative licence in a smooth, plausible tale with just a couple of implausible scenes. In a vibrant, fast-moving production directed by Indhu Rubasingham (Red Velvet, The Wife of Willesden), the Olivier Theatre’s capacious stage becomes variously Godse’s childhood home, the study where the politicians hammered out their plans for independence, the villages where repression by the British authorities led to rebellion, and finally the prison where Godse and his co-conspirator Narayan Apte (Sid Sagar) were held after the murder and ultimately hanged.
Although there is no historical record of Gandhi and Godse having met until the mid-1940s, in the play their paths cross well before that, and like most other Indians Godse is seduced by Gandhi’s charisma.
However, as British rule becomes ever more brutal and repressive – the play recalls and enacts some of the most harrowing massacres, when British troops fire on unarmed civilians (excellent sound design from Alexander Caplen) – Godse starts querying Gandhi’s tactics, his insistence on non-violence, or ‘ahimsa.’
And he falls under the spell of the Hindu fundamentalist Vinayak Savarkar (Sagar Arya), whose model was Nazi Germany’s notion of ‘one land, one people’, which would exclude Muslims from an independent India, something Godse comes to believe in absolutely.
In parallel to Godse’s personal development, we witness the ever more fraught political discussions between Nehru (Mac Elliott), his colleague Saradar Patel (Ravin J Ganatra) and Jinnah (Irvine Iqbal), the Muslim leader pushing for partition.
Marc Elliott (Jawaharlal Nehru), Irvine Iqbal (Mohammad Ali Jinnah) and Ravin J Ganatra (Sardar Vallabhai Patel) in The Father and the Assassin at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner
It is to the playwright’s credit that these expository scenes sound genuine, rather than dry history lessons.
Where I felt plausibility failed was in the final confrontation between Gandhi and Godse, where the fraught dialogue sounded forced and rather illogical in the context of what went before.
The same goes for the epilogue, where post-death Gandhi and Godse meet again, before Godse launches into a final diatribe warning that he or, we presume, others like him, will return.
These small flaws, though, in no way diminish a play that blends the best of British theatrical tradition with the vibrancy of Indian performance as represented by Bollywood, and is served by a top-class cast.
|What||The Father and the Assassin, National Theatre|
|Where||National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
08 Sep 23 – 14 Oct 23, 7:30 PM – 9:35 PM
|Website||Click here to book|