It is ostensibly about Indian and British history, in this new production this year – but is also about the growth and seductive power of Nationalism – without really taking a side…
SOMETHINGS are never quite as good or as impactful as the first time.
It’s difficult to say that as I didn’t see the first production of ‘The Father and the Assassin’ in May last year.
Written by well-established Indian playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar and directed by Indhu Rubasingham this is a solid, if slightly underwhelming play, given its grand historical setting.
The production and the acting are generally of a high order, but the play lacks real bite or conflict and runs through late pre-Independence Indian history rather like a BBC factual programme.
There is this side and then there is that side.
It doesn’t really reveal its hand – which might be a good thing – after all a murderer is a murderer and even the main protagonist – Nathuram Godse (played by Hiran Abeysekera) acknowledges his crime and goes to the gallows, believing what he has done is right for India, and if he has to pay the price, so be it: he is trying to save the Hindu nation.
Chandrasekhar takes you to a point in history and leaves you there – saying in effect, you decide.
No sides are really taken in the play – Godse is a fine individual, perhaps a little hot-headed and egotistical and as played by Abeysekera, rather mischievous and impishly naughty (not dangerous).
MK Gandhi, the leader of Indian independence, is also another well-meaning, upstanding principled individual too, perhaps a Mahatma (great soul), perhaps not, but you decide…
When it first came to National Theatre on the Southbank last year, there were concerns as to how the public might react – these are two diametrically opposed sides in contemporary Indian politics and both figures, Godse and MK Gandhi, have undergone major historical revisions in India.
Godse is now seen as an early forerunner of contemporary Hindu Nationalist ideology; he was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which spawned the modern-day ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and provided the launchpad for current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to assume power successfully in 2014 and 2019 – and now it seems likely to be a hat-trick of election victories in 2024.
As such, Godse is not so much a villain any more – but a totemic figure of what was to come – yes, some people really would like to see a statue built in his honour in India, as Abeysekera, in character, points out in the play. He could see the future and rubbished secularism and believed in Hindutva (a form of living that accords with an idea of Vedic India (or Bharat) – and was a man before his time, his supporters believe passionately.
On the other side, the Mahatma (Bazely) is no longer seen in such terms – he was the most prominent figure in the pre-independence Congress Party, which has ruled India for more years than any other – and MK Gandi along with Jawaharlal Nehru (Marc Elliott) is now held responsible by those on the other side – for holding the country back and actually dissing Hinduism – the majority faith in India.
Both narratives are problematic and complicated and riddled with contradictions.
The play does not attempt to deconstruct or decode these in any way.
The great intellectual who inspired Godse himself – Vinayak Savarkar (a quite brilliant Tony Jayawardene) – is described in this play as a Hindu and an atheist – perfectly possible within the parameters of a culture (and not a religion), but rather more tricky for audiences and the masses to appreciate.
Savarkar is also seen in modern-day India, as one of the country’s towering intellectual figures, who was also part of the Indian freedom movement – but it has taken the BJP and nationalist commentators to review his contribution to the struggle against the British.
Savarkar thought the only way the way the British would quit India – is by Indians taking up arms.
In the play, especially in the beginning, there is a lot made of the concept of Ahimsa – non-violence on which MK Gandi made his name. The concept of not causing harm to any living creature is embedded in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.
In the beginning, Godse sees MK Gandhi as a figure on the right side of history but Partition and the “constant appeasement of Muslims or minorities”, (a common narrative pitted by nationalists) leads him to violence and taking out the man he believes responsible for India’s fracture.
There isn’t enough of a sense of the epic or weight of history behind any of this in the play – it’s all a little anodyne – it’s only when Kamala, (Aysha Kala), Godse’s old childhood friend re-enters in adulthood, we see someone who is passionate and engaging about the New India, as conceived by Gandhi, that it comes alive.
It’s great to see so many talented Asian actors command the National Theatre stage, but this doesn’t feel like a play that really wants to grapple with what is right and what is wrong – it is, in that slightly liberal cop out way – leaving you to decide…
Despite that, it is a stimulating play; is a helpful way of sorts into contemporary nationalist and politically motivated religious thinking (about India in this particular case) and a fine production on several levels – but don’t expect to leave the theatre fired up one way or other…
ACV rating: *** (out of five)
‘The Father and the Assassin’ by Anupama Chandrasekhar at The Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London SE1 9PX (September 7) until October 14
Roundtable discussion with Anupama Chandrasekhar, Indhu Rubasingham, Paul Bazely and Hiran Abeysekera
Interview with Shubham Saraf (who played Godse in 2022 production) – http://asianculturevulture.com/portfolios/the-father-and-the-assassin-the-likeable-killer-actor-shubham-saraf-on-nathuram-godse-interview/
See video interview with him about Shantaram but also talks a little about his role and how he started in theatre – https://youtu.be/va7UFZ2Z3T0?t=421