Within a minute of the start of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s magnificent The Father and the Assassin, Gandhi’s murderer, Nathuram Godse, has already mocked us all for only knowing about him through “that fawning Attenborough film. With Sir Ben Kingsley”. The scorn fairly drips from his lips, but we forgive him, because we are already spellbound by this cheeky chirpy chap who addresses us as though he’s Live at the Apollo, and we’re all out to have some fun. How can it be that we so easily fall for his charm and humour, this man who sets out to kill Gandhi; the Father of India, the model of humanity, the architect of non-violent protest?
Surely he’s a ruthless ogre, a tyrannical terrorist, a monster in human form? No. He’s just little Nathuram Godse, born to a Brahmin family who made him grow up as a girl because they were terrified that all the boys in the family die due to some ridiculous curse. With such an artificial start to life, no one could blame him for feeling like a fish out of water, at odds with the world. He runs away to hear his childhood hero Gandhi address a crowd; and when the nine-year-old Godse can’t pretend to be a girl anymore, who is there to dress him like a boy in a kurta pyjama and thus allow him to start his life over again? None other than the great man himself. Chandrasekhar blurs so many lines with her depiction of Godse that you cannot but admire him, and appreciate his complicated and conflicting emotions, even though we know, and he knows we know, that he’s a murderer.
Never off stage, Godse takes us through his childhood, and his relationship with his parents, through to his apprenticeship to the tailor Kishore, his introduction to nationalist agitator Vinayak Savarkar and espousal of his beliefs, the discussions and agreements that led to partition, and the perception that Gandhi is to blame. We see the assassination, and the arrests of Godse and his friend Apte. But as Godse avows to the audience at the end, “it’s better to be a Godse than a Gandhi… A Gandhi is of no use to you when tomorrow’s battles are fought with deadlier weapons. No, you’ll need a Godse. And I will rise.”
Rajha Shakiry’s simple but impressive set design is a backdrop of threads; tightly woven at one end representing a cohesive piece of material, separated at the other end to reveal the individual cotton threads that lack the skilled craftsman to make cloth. Gandhi, of course, famously spun cotton; is he the master who can make a whole from the disparate threads of the Indian subcontinent, or is he the reason the country is randomly picked apart, resulting in the personal and national horrors of partition?
A great set, costumes, lighting and so on; but the real strength of this production is that enchanted theatre environment where inspired writing and superb performance meet. Shubham Saraf is simply mind-blowing as Godse; his is a performance of enormous wit, charm, humour and intelligence. The essential challenge of the play, to win the audience onto the side of the murderer, is achieved right from the start with Mr Saraf’s masterful delivery and hugely likeable characterisation. His light-hearted attitude makes the perfect contrast with Paul Bazely’s serious Gandhi, who takes control of his scenes with a measured calmness that gives you an instant insight into the man’s charisma, and is another brilliant characterisation.
Tony Jayawardena and Ayesha Dharker are superb as Godse’s parents, fussing and protecting and trying to lay down the law as good Indian parents always do. I really enjoyed the portrayal of Jinnah by Irvine Iqbal, wiping out the memory from “that fawning Attenborough film” that Jinnah was the outright bad guy, representing him in a much more reasonable light. There’s excellent support from Ankur Bahl as the petulant tailor Kishore, and as his childhood friend Madhav; and from Dinita Gohil as his friend Vimala, who constantly returns to interrupt Godse’s narrative, questioning his beliefs and attitudes, much to his annoyance.
There are great performances also from Sagar Arya as the severe and ruthless Savarkar, encouraging unrest from Godse, and a scene-stealing turn from Nadeem Islam as Mithun, the school watchman, who tries to influence young Godse but is let down by him. But the entire cast work together extremely well and tell this beautifully written story with conviction, humour and tremendous heart.
This is one of those rare, delightful productions that you know is going to be fantastic right from the very start. The two and half hours fly by, without a duff scene or a wasted word, piecing together the jigsaw puzzle that unites Godse and Gandhi in an attempt to justify the assassination. Of course, the audience will be the judge of that. And there are one or two references that sneak in, regarding life in Britain today; some things just never change. I was riveted throughout. And with Mr Shubham Saraf, a star is most definitely born! The play continues at the Olivier Theatre until 18th June, but I’m sure it won’t be the last we see of this modern classic.
Production photos by Marc Brenner