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FringeReview UK 2023

The Father and the Assassin

National Theatre, London

Genre: Biographical Drama, Drama, Historical, International, Mainstream Theatre, Political, Theatre, Tragedy

Venue: National Theatre, Olivier


Low Down

There’s no finer dramatization of India’s internal conflicts. Hiran Abeysekera’s Gandhi-killer Godse stands out in this thrilling ensemble and storms it too.

The National continues its critique of empire, so desperately needed. The Father and the Assassin though is horribly up-to-date, emphatically asks questions of us.

Anupama Chandrasekhar’s The Father and the Assassin at the National Theatre’s Olivier is directed by Indhu Rubasingham. Designed by Rajha Shakiry, Lighting Design Oliver Fenwick. Movement Director Lucy Cullingford, Composer Siddartha Khosla, Musical Director David Shrubsole, Sound Design Alexander Caplen, Fight Directors Kate Waters, Casting Alastair Coomer CDG, Dialect Coach Shereen Ibrahim, Company Voice Work Jeannette Nelson, Staff Director John Young, Dramaturg Emily McLoughlin.

Till October 14th



Anyone who, like me, might have felt it indulgent to revisit the revival of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s magnificent 2022 The Father and the Assassin, again directed by Indhu Rubasingham, will need to see this. The opening though remains iconic.

“What are you staring at? Have you never seen a murderer up close before? Take a good look. You’ve paid good money to be here.” Hiran Abeysekera’s Nathuram Godse rises up through the Olivier stage. Puck in sacrificial dress.

He keeps doing it. A beat later he’s joking again: “that phoney Attenborough film with Sir Ben Kingsley”, says Gandhi’s long-dead killer who nevertheless tells him later: “This is my story and I’ll tell it my way. Why don’t you just stay dead?”

But Gandhi’s laughing. He often is, can be just as puckish. Indeed Paul Bazely’s sparkling figure convinces you of Gandhi’s lawyer wit like no other. And he literally has the last laugh. It’s not about him or even Godse, but India.

Working with her team Chandrasekhar makes small changes on most pages, pointing jokes, eliding an exchange. So like The Effect, playing next door; but after just 16 months, and slightly expanded too, not contracted by 15%. Overall it’s even funnier. Act Three’s “welcome back” now really plays with the crowd – then twists into nationalism.

Chandrasekhar’s epic wears history like few others too. Not replayed as farce though. With Godse as protagonist, skewing it his way, however unreliable, Chandrasekhar’s avoids much recourse to lecture. A bit, yes, but the brilliance of this play, now delivered in two-hours-thirty with interval, is to pack so much in from a wrong-way telescope, to see it better. Gandhi isn’t – tragically – the only father Godse seeks.

What Chandrasekhar depicts – pointing mirrors to the UK, US, Russia, Hungary, Brazil and others – is Modi’s India in embryo (referencing starving farmers here is pointed). Far-right Hindu nationalism is skewered even more this time. It’s a chilling parable on how its progenitor Vinayak Savarkar’s treatise spreads and, at the moment triumphs, in a world prone to making bigotry great again. India had at least a catalyst: looming partition and “Pakistan… Hindustan”. Against this Chandrasekhar zeroes in on Godse’s switch of allegiance: “Hope smells like sandalwood.” With Gandhi it had been jade.

So Godse’s a perfect storm of an avatar. Initially a follower of Gandhi, he’s caught up by Tony Jayawardena’s Savarkar: a basso-voiced grand inquisitor (last time Jayawardena played Godse’s Baba). Savarkar’s initially dismissive. But in a scene recalling O’Brien grooming Winston and Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Savarkar in his “death must be worth it” winds in both Godse and the more larky, flirty Naryan Apte (Sid Sagar) the macho foil to Godse’s backstory.

For  Chandrasekhar’s creative premise is grounded in fact. Godse’s parents (Ayesha Dharker’s anxious, controlling Aai, Ravi Aujla’s sad if sanguine Baba) losing all previous sons, dress Godse as a girl. More, they convince him he channels propitiatory powers direct from the goddess, which young Nathuram revels in till he doesn’t. A chance meeting with Gandhi confirms his gender – very much speculation! It’s this identity fissure Savarkar exploits in the young tailor who failed to get to college. A youth once “somebody” at nine, Godse by reaching twelve fails in life: at the point of self-discovery.

Along the way there’s delightful work from a brace of childhood friends: Hari Mackinnon’s Madhav and particularly Aysha Kala’s Vimala in their farthest-spitting competition; and Vimala’s blossoming into a Gandhi-supporting secularist, appalled at her lost friend.  Spitting’s now dialectical and real. Nadeem Islam’s avuncular ‘shit {school} watchman’ Mithun radicalises Godse and pays for it, with Azan Ahmed’s lowering policeman. Godse’s never free of the dead either. Mithun taunts him too but – in this version – mutely.

Rubasingham’s fleet direction finds an analogue in Rajha Shakiry’s set, swept for epic. The revolve’s bare but for one raised bump, set against a backdrop warp and weft: homespun fabrics eschewing British imports. They glint in Oliver Fenwick’s lighting, particularly striking at Independence with fireworks (Alexander Caplen’s sound, almost olfactory, at its apex here too); but throwing populous shadows, hazing a vast world.

Lucy Cullingford’s movement captures British barbarity, lines of salt-tax protesters repeatedly dropping under blows (with understudies there’s now a cast of twenty), deservedly the most famous scene. But also in games where three children own space and time. There’s dispatch too in Siddartha Khosla’s music, evoking never punctuating. Rubasingham suggests stillness but manages velocity.

Chandrasekhar concentrates debates too, in elegant distillations of so many. So Marc Elliott’s sober, up-to-a-point Nehru doesn’t always support his mentor Gandhi in his slow-walk-to-freedom approach that alienates many like Godse. Bazely well conveys Gandhi’s isolation as well as earlier triumphs.  There’s vectors of conflict between them all: Nicholas Khan’s Jinnah, Ravin J Ganatra’s ‘iron man of India’ lawyer Patel; both over secular integration and ways to oppose British rule.

Abeysekera’s Godse though controls this story, and loses it, the small man once a somebody girl. Abeysekera has to stand out in this thrilling ensemble and he storms it too. In energy, hilarity, pathos and horror. He has an audience in his trigger-fingers, hesitating hate. There’s fizzing quizzicality in his smile to convince you he’s prone to delusional truth too: confronting the living and dead. And naturally pure delusion. A few circuits and bumps aside – and this play needs them, paradoxically – there’s no finer dramatization of India’s internal conflicts in the UK. The National continues its critique of empire, so desperately needed. The Father and the Assassin though is horribly up-to-date, emphatically asks questions of us. This second production asks them a notch sharper.