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The Father and the Assassin – Olivier Theatre, National Theatre

I know we’re in confident hands from the moment the National Theatre’s The Father and the Assassin begins.

Sid Sagar and Hiran Abeysekera. Photo by Marc Brenner.
Sid Sagar and Hiran Abeysekera. Photo by Marc Brenner.

From the ceiling of an elegantly empty set (designed by Rajha Shakiry), giant bullets, spotlighted, drop like bombs launching a war. There are three of them: representing the three fatal shots fired into Gandhi’s chest by Nathuram Godse, the play’s narrator and anti-hero.

This choice of narration is a brilliant decision by Anupama Chandrasekhar, who has written a script filled with moments of humour and tenderness. Tension in Godse’s uncertainty about whether this is his story or Gandhi’s, and how to outline their parallel lives, thrums under Indhu Rubasingham’s self-assured direction. The brilliance of the conception and writing is in its attempt to complicate our feelings, as an audience, about the beloved ‘father of India’ and his murderer. This is a huge challenge, but one with an interpersonal focus that makes it the perfect size to fit into a stage play.

I suspect that audience members will differ in their assessment of whether the play succeeds in humanising a killer, and at least raising questions about Gandhi and his legacy. For me, it never quite achieves this. Godse’s position – that Gandhi’s advocacy of Ahimsa, or non-violence – amounts to capitulation in the face of the British enemy is countered most convincingly not by Gandhi, but by Godse’s childhood friend, who insists, “Protest is fight. Non-resistance is fight.” Gandhi and his movement are portrayed not as weak appeasers, but as firebrand union leaders and members, pulling far more effective economic, political and moral levers to deliver change. But Godse’s position surely transcends rationality, and with its emotional call for violence and revenge appeals to hearts, not heads.

This conflict, between decisions made intelligently, cold and calculated, and the human feelings that confound them, runs through the play. From an early age, Godse is brought up as a girl by parents who believe this will allow their child to escape a cursed male line; but it also conveniently feeds the family, through Godse’s mystical ability to channel a goddess. His own feelings on the matter are ignored, exemplifying the conflict between rational choice and unchangeable emotions, with ultimately disastrous consequences. It is no coincidence that the playwright chooses Gandhi to free Godse from this deception.

If this gender-bending storyline sounds political in today’s climate, I can only assume this is deliberate. The storyline is constructed cleverly, in a way that will surely have both sides of the current rights ‘conflict’ claiming it supports their position. So-called ‘gender critical’ voices could suggest this is an example of parents forcing a (possibly gay) boy to pretend to be a girl, causing inevitable harm. Trans rights supporters will argue it shows that it is always bad to force upon someone (trans or cis) a gender identity that isn’t who they truly are. Balancing perspectives, and inviting the audience to confront their own prejudices, is what this play is all about.

The other thing that convinces me this political element is intentional is another horribly present concern showcased: democracy is portrayed as in conflict with unity. The play foreshadows Modi’s rise – and what seems to be a victory of Hindu nationalism over the united struggle against oppression that Gandhi advocates (at least as portrayed in this show). We’re used to thinking of Gandhi as having won his battles; here we’re invited to think again.

It is in this widening of perspective towards the end where I feel the production falls a little short. The final act shows us the catastrophe of Partition. Complicating the counter-intuitively intimate relationship between a hero and his murderer works brilliantly on stage, but Partition feels, to me, too large a topic to contain here. I can’t conceive of it being revealed in a new light as anything but an unimaginable tragedy. This tips off balance the many ambiguities so masterfully constructed in the rest of the piece, and for me distracts from the focus on these two men and their all-too-human lives, extraordinary in such different ways.

4 stars

Review by Ben Ross

Mahatma Gandhi: lawyer, champion of non-violence, beloved leader.

Nathuram Godse: journalist, nationalist – and the man who murdered Gandhi.

This gripping play traces Godse’s life over 30 years during India’s fight for independence: from a devout follower of Gandhi, through to his radicalisation and their tragic final encounter in Delhi in 1948.

Director Indhu Rubasingham (Kerry Jackson, The Great Wave) reunites with Anupama Chandrasekhar, one of India’s most exciting playwrights, for this essential exploration of oppression and extremism, featuring Olivier Award-winner Hiran Abeysekera (Life of Pi) as Nathuram Godse with Paul Bazely (Cruella) as Mahatma Gandhi.

Olivier Theatre
Booking to 14 October 2023
National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX
https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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