To say that ‘The Father and the Assassin’ is a historical drama about Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram Godse, is both accurate and a bone-dry underselling of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s play.
Wandering on stage, covered in blood, with an enormous shit-eating grin on his face, Shubham Saraf gives a hilarious, tragic, titanic tour de force performance as Godse. He initially presents as a sort of wannabe supervillain: convinced (or is he?) that he’s achieved a great thing in killing Gandhi, gleefully needling the audience with snarky lines about how our knowledge of his victim is solely derived from Wikipedia and ‘that fawning Attenborough film’.
Soon, though, it becomes apparent that he’s such an unreliable narrator that he can’t even convince himself: characters pop up unbidden from his subconscious to aggressively complicate his attempts to argue that Gandhi was a big fraud and it was necessary for him to die.
Before long, the play thrillingly dives into Nathuram’s backstory and we discover that he had a truly bizarre childhood, having been a) raised as a girl by his parents (it’s a long story) and b) regarded as a conduit for the goddess Durga who he seemed to believe spoke through him. (‘Kindly switch off your British scepticism,’ requests Saraf prior to introducing this bit.)
The masterstroke of Chandrasekhar’s script is that it seamlessly merges her artistic licence with Nathuram’s total unreliability. It’s worth taking much of what happens here with as big a pinch of salt as the one Paul Bazely’s wily Gandhi hefts at the end of his march of protest against the British (an event Nathuram tries to tell us was a failure, though his rebellious subconscious begs to differ).
Was it really the Father of India who first pointed out to the young Nathuram that she was a he? I assume the scene is entirely made up, but that’s fine because the symbolism is what counts here. Gandhi was the young Nathuram’s first male role model. But this was intertwined with a sense of bereavement: the ‘goddess’ leaves Nathuram after he adopts a male identity, and he suddenly feels pedestrian, inconsequential, bearing a chip on his shoulder about his masculinity. Eventually, looking to feel important again, he falls under the sway of self-important Hindu nationalist Vinayak Savarkar (Sagar Arya), who sets the malleable young man down his final path.
It’s blunt but also, I think, fair to compare ‘The Father and the Assassin’ to Peter Shaffer’s ‘Amadeus’. Both are brilliantly entertaining historical dramas written for the NT’s Olivier theatre that are presented by an unreliable antihero who is obsessed with a much more significant historical figure. They’re not synonymous, but they’re not far apart spiritually.
Where ‘The Father and the Assassin’ differs greatly is in that it’s very, very funny. Saraf’s energetic, charismatic, fourth-wall-breaking performance is essentially comic, bordering on standup at times. Yet it’s more complex than that, laced with poignancy, rage, despair and, above all, incomprehension: Nathuram never understands himself and often simply stops the play when a painful memory comes up. And he clearly never understands Gandhi. He’s consistently wrong about the older man’s motives and effectiveness, unable to see that his antipathy boils down to jealousy.
By contrast, Bazely’s Gandhi is much more a shrewd politician than the saint of legend. He is, of course, barely aware of Nathuram’s existence until the end. Instead, Gandhi’s arc is a whistlestop tour of his hugely successful non-violent opposition to British rule and his almost diametrically fruitless attempts to stem the forces of Hindu nationalism.
The end of the play echoes ‘Amadeus’: Gandhi remains a giant of history; Nathuram, fascinating character though he was, barely mattered. Killing the 78-year-old probably didn’t alter much, apart from fuelling the myth of Gandhi. But it’s the assassin’s denial about this that gives the play its spark.
‘The Father and the Assassin’ is a tremendous piece of writing from Chandrasekhar, with a titanic lead performance from Saraf: part historical character study, part meta-comedy, part philosophical treatise, part forensic analysis of colonialism’s legacy and nationalism’s toxicity.
It’s also a great production technically: the Olivier can be a graveyard for new work, but director Indhu Rubasingham makes it look easy. Against the abstract, evocative backdrop of Rajha Shakiry’s set of unravelling fabric, the action unfolds on a clean, largely uncluttered stage, picked out dextrously by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting. There are props, but nothing ostentatious. The humans go front and centre, chiefly the extraordinary Saraf who frequently stands right on the lip of the stage to chat to us – a human special effect.
If the play has a potential flaw, it’s that it might lose steam in the history lesson-style parts when Nathuram is (pointedly) sidelined. I could see it feeling a bit exposed by a less good director. But Rubasingham powers through these sections with the verve of a political thriller. This is a production that has magic to spare.