Writer: Anupama Chandrasekhar
Director: Indhu Rubasingham
How long does it take for a real life murder to become a laughing matter? 74 years perhaps? The question arises because of Anupaama Chandrasekhar’s new play about the 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation. The play surprises everyone by setting out its stall as a frivolous comedy, only moving on to grittier stuff when the action is well underway.
The assassin, Nathuram Godse (Shubham Saraf) is convicted and awaiting execution. Saraf steps forward and addresses the audience directly, picking out individual members and prowling around in the manner of a stand-up comic. “Forget the Attenborough film and Sir Ben Kingsley” he advises, adding a quiet sideways chuckle. The irreverence is irresistible and Saraf, never off stage, is terrific.
Director Indhu Rubasingham’s expansive production uses the adaptability of the Olivier stage rather than formal sets. With a company of 19, some crowd scenes are thrilling, but others are confusing. When the comedy diminishes, the production frequently loses its way. The play is presented as an epic history story on a grand scale, a concept that is not entirely consistent with the humorous writing.
Godse tells the story of how he came to commit the infamous deed, starting with his first chance encounter with Gandhi (Paul Bazely) at the age of seven. His superstitious parents believed that only their daughters survived infancy and so they raised him as a girl. This gives Saraf another opportunity to milk the comedy by donning drag. Eventually, Godse strikes out for his own freedom and champions the cause of his nation’s freedom from British Colonial rule.
The story continues with our “hero” attending school at Pune and beginning an apprenticeship as a tailor, frequently crossing paths with his eventual victim. He becomes a passionate supporter of a Hindu India, free from Britain and, as the comedy diminishes, this is where the play’s problems begin. We are now asked to take this figure of fun seriously as a red blooded revolutionary, at odds with Gandhi’s advocacy of pacifism as a weapon of warfare, and the transition is hard to accept.
As independence draws nearer, the play goes deeper into the murky waters of Indian politics, involving Gandhi and India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru (Marc Elliott). The contentious issue is partition of Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan, rushed through by a British government intern on what Godse describes as “a quick Brexit”. Many will already be familiar with the history (if only from having seen that Attenborough film) and the play adds little to it, but it seems that partition is the assassin’s chief grievance against Gandhi. Given the benefit of hindsight, Chandrasekhar sees a catastrophic error that would lead to genocide, human rights abuses, nuclear proliferation and decades of simmering conflict, although the writer puts the words into the mouth of the doomed Godse, for whom it is foresight.
The Father and the Assassin is a mixed bag, elevated by Saraf’s central performance. This is a personal triumph for him. He owns the stage from start to finish and makes what could have resembled a wearying dissertation on Indian political history at least bearable and frequently entertaining, even though nothing in this story is really a laughing matter.
Runs until 18 June 2022