Writer: Anupama Chandrasekhar
Director: Indhu Rubasingham
Who would have thought that the story of Gandhi’s murder would be so funny? For most of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s play, returning to the National, Gandhi’s assassin is a likeable character and, as narrator, is on stage the whole time. Hiran Abeysekera gives one of the best performances of the year as the nationalist killer, but somewhere in the midst of all the laughter that The Father and the Assassin generates is a hollow core.
Chandrasekhar’s play begins with the three bullets that kill the Father of India, Mohandas Gandhi, in 1948, a year after India finally is granted independence, but not before Britain sliced up the country into two, India and Pakistan. But soon the action flashbacks and we see Gandhi’s early campaigns against British rule and British taxation where he first advocated for non-violent tactics following the principle of Ahimsa, a belief in the power of non-violence.
These revolutionary politics caught the attention of Nathuram Godse, who was at the time a young girl. After all their sons had died at an early age, Godse’s parents promised the gods that if they had another boy they would raise him as a girl in exchange for his survival. It’s not until Godse meets Gandhi for the first time, a fictional meeting here, that he realises that he is in fact a boy and this confusion about masculinity haunts Godse’s future.
Gandhi’s crusade was a slow one, and many in India felt that a more violent approach would bring freedom from the British more quickly. And others, including radical Vinayak Savarkar, believed that Gandhi was making too many concessions to the minority Muslim population and forsaking the Hindu majority. Godse is eager to help Savarkar in any way possible and is soon convinced by Savarkar’s nationalist politics in that a free India will be a Hindu one.
Abeysekera’s Godse is a remarkable invention; at the start, he is charming and childlike and his journey from girlhood to killer is comically played. However, his innocence becomes more chilling as the play continues. In comparison, Paul Bazely’s Gandhi is a little pompous and doesn’t believe in compromise. Bazely captures an older Gandhi especially well.
It’s clear that we should also take The Father and the Assassin as a warning, one perhaps that after the Brexit vote comes too late. For Chandrasekhar’s story is a condemnation of nationalism and the way that patriotism can easily turn into something more invidious than simple flag-waving.
Director Indhu Rubasingham sets a good pace, and the play only flags in the middle of the second half. For such an epic story, the cast is surprisingly small and can’t quite fill Rajha Shakiry’s minimal stage design, which again, like the focus on comedy, drains some of the emotion from the play. But as a cautionary tale, The Father and the Assassin does its job admirably.
Runs until 14 October 2023