Mahatma Gandhi’s death at the hands of an extremist is the subject of a new play at the National Theatre…
By Suman Bhuchar
IT IS TRUE that the name of the man who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi is “etched in India’s history” as the actor, Shubham Saraf who plays the ‘murderer’ Nathuram Godse reminds us in this new play, ‘The Father and the Assassin’.
The show directed by Indhu Rubasingham officially opened at the Olivier Stage of the National Theatre on Thursday (May 19) on the 112th birth anniversary of our antagonist – in case anyone observed the connection.
Indian playwright, Anupama Chandrasekhar has made a brave attempt to get into his psyche to understand what drove Godse to that fatal point of January 30, 1948 – a date fixed into the minds of every Indian when he pulled the trigger on ‘Bapu’ – the Father of this play, and commonly referred to in India as the father of the nation.
To a certain degree she succeeds, we learn that Godse’s parents brought him up as a girl – because they felt cursed as their other male children had died. Godse felt he had powers of prophecy because he imagined he was visited by the Goddess Durga and later rebelled to assert his
own identity and live as a boy.
Designed by Rajha Shakiry with lighting by Oliver Fenwick and music by Siddhartha Khosla the Olivier is the largest of the three theatres at the National.
The stage is an amphitheatre and audience/actors can see each other from all angles. Mostly it is bare in a purple colour, revolves as required while sets and scenery pop up as needed. There is a white threaded weave backdrop as a nod to Gandhi’s ‘khadi’ home spun philosophy.
Described as a ‘history’ and ‘memory play’ it spans around four decades of Indian history from 1910 – 1948.
Saraf is a seductive figure on a blank stage as he moves and address the audience directly leading us through an episodic structure of Indian history and tries to explain why he did what he did? The audience does laugh in many moments and it does feel uncomfortable…
At first, Godse is seduced by Gandhi’s philosophy when he takes up the case on behalf of the farmers who are having to grow indigo and get nothing for their efforts. This is the famous Champaran Satyagraha* of 1917 and galvanises the Indians against the British.
There are many political episodes but suffice to say that Godse becomes disillusioned with Gandhi because he feels India is not winning.
He is a man watching political events unfold from the sidelines and even tries his own Satyagraha to get his caretaker Mithun freed from the British but to no avail.
Mithun (played by Nadeem Islam) is a fantastic performer and the scenes between them are a treat, especially where he shows him how to behave like a man in order to fit in.
It is wonderful to see the stage of the Olivier populated with a cast of 19 talented Asian actors most of whom have worked in theatres up and down the country.
Paul Bazely makes a fine Gandhi, Marc Elliott is great as Nehru, Irvine Iqbal, a statesmanlike Jinnah, Ravin J Ganatra as Saradar Vallabhbhai Patel, Tony Jayawardena as Godse’s father, Baba and Sid Sagar as Godse’s accomplice, Narayan Apte.
Peter Singh plays several different types of policemen enjoying brandishing the ‘lathi’ on the backs of the poor suffering Indians, while Sagar Arya is particularly menacing as Vinayak ‘Vir’
Savarkar – the man who ends up influencing Godse, with his ‘Hindutva’ –philosophy of Hinduness and the idea of a Hindu Nation. He cuts a surer figure and thus appealing to Godse who seems a person who likes certainties. Nevertheless you cannot be sure if they are discussing the past or
Ankur Bahl is great as the tailor, Kishore to whom Godse is reluctantly apprenticed and Ayesha Dharker is a cutting Aai – mother to Godse, and other female cast consist of Sakuntala Ramanee, and Halema Hussai who are also part of the ensemble with Dinita Gohil as Godse’s childhood
At times, ‘The Father and the Assassin’ feels like a history lesson and there are the big tableau pieces of the Dandi Salt March and the violence of Partition – but it lacks the visceral connection that it describes.
The show has taken over five years to get to the stage and it is the conceit of the author that the antagonist and protagonist meet each other. At the final moment before Gandhi hits the ground he is reputed to have said, “Hey Ram” (“Oh God”) and those words are missing in
That feels like an omission, as these two words are iconic, although as Chandrasekhar says in her essay published in the programme: “I did not want the show to be a history lesson.”
By the end of Godse’s journey, we don’t really get into the mind of what drove him to pull the trigger but we are given reasons and we see his impotent rage.
The main message seems to be that when ahimsa dies we have himsa (violence).
The scale of the show is epic, with great performance and this is an immense achievement.
*Satyagraha means truth force and is the name for the politics of non violence resistance established by Gandhi
ACV rating **** (out of five)
All pictures ©Marc Brenner
‘The Father and the Assassin’ by Anupama Chandrasekhar, until June 18, Olivier Stage, The National Theatre, Southbank, London, SE1 9PX