THE FATHER AND
THE NATIONAL THEATRE
By Anupama Chandrasekhar
Directed By Indhu Rubasingham
Till 14th October 2023
31 August, 2023
There are many telltale signs when a production is outstanding, and perhaps the biggest of them is when, during the interval, you have to take copious notes to remind yourself of names, dates, and places to check when you get home. History has a richness that is static, and simple facts are unchangeable; they are etched into it. And it is this richness of history, time, and place that uplifts Gandhi’s and Nathuram Godse’s story, legacy, and connection, which provides audiences with information they never knew before, even if this history is well known and documented.
Perhaps some might think it's foolish of me to admit that I did not know that Gandhi was assassinated, but it's the truth, and I think if others were equally honest, they may admit the same. Admitting this isn't to show my ignorance of history; no, I am admitting this because not knowing that Gandhi was assassinated also meant I had no knowledge of his assassin, his life, his experiences, or the deeply troubling political divisions that marred India at the time.
This is a big production, and there is a lot that is unpacked that begins with an effective and powerful opening scene that sees three giant bullets fall from the ceiling. The first line from Nathuram Godse, Hiran Abeysekera, was, “What are you staring at? Have you never seen a murderer up close before?”, sets the stage for this intricate balance of drama, comedy, and a touch of surrealism that holds the audience. And it is this hold, established early in the play, that becomes the most defining aspect of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s text.
In Godse, the audience is introduced to a character who has been radicalised, in part by his journey to find a male role model that he could look up to, respect, honour, and be guided by. The relationship between Godse and his parents became irreparable due to the lies and advantages they took from him as a child. So for Godse this betrayal unshackled him and left him uprooted for most of his life. The significance of Gandhi in this context is that it was he who showed the young Godse that he was a boy—could this awakening have had more detrimental damage on him? Could Godse see Gandhi as the origin of the destabilising events of his early life?
I would make the claim that Godse’s deep hatred of Gandhi had nothing really to do with the radicalization or the political upheaval that India was going through as it edged towards independence and partition. Godse blame towards Gandhi seems irrational, and it is the revelation of Godse's sex that really did change his life; it changed his purpose and, most importantly, changed the way his family saw, treated, and acted towards him. He was no longer a deity that was fated by locals; he was an ordinary boy who had to go to school and eventually find a job. Here Chandrasekhar’s text suggests that this exposure of the lie from his parents and the brutal social and cultural change that Godse would endure had a significant role to play in his animosity towards Gandhi but also made him more susceptible. For Godse part of his identity was a fraud, and exposing that fraud ensured he became lost in this unending search for a male role model to fill this void in his life.
The men that come into Godse's life from Mithun, Nadeem Islam, his boarding school's politically minded caretaker, whom he forms an indelible connection with, and Kishore, Raj Ghatak, the tailor he apprentices for and with whom he has a tumultuous relationship, leave these lasting impressions. And to the impression felt and left by Vinayak Savarkar, played with conviction by Tony Jayawardena, these men represent something to him, but it is Savarkar who would leave the most damaging impact on Godse’s impressionable mind.
In the final moments of The Father and the Assassin, Abeysekera maintains Godse sense of urgency, but there is a little dip, perhaps doubt or uncertainty, that has crept in. The fourth wall is broken again when his old childhood friend Vimala, Aysha Kala, comes back and pours water on Godse’s attempt to diminish the peaceful protest that Gandhi had in the infamous Salt March. The battle with his old friend is a battle of memory, history, and what we choose to believe. This tug of war for truth adds not just some of the funniest moments in the play for both Abeysekera and Kala but also allows director Indhu Rubasingham to create a memorable theatrical moment.
By downplaying the first Salt March, Godse outright refuses to acknowledge its success and the impact it had on the people. Instead, he continues to blame Gandhi and uses the second Salt March, which ended in tragedy, as all the evidence he needs to illustrate why Gandhi got everything so wrong and that peaceful protests wouldn't and couldn't work. It's not explicitly stated or clear in this exchange, but I feel that at this moment, Godse understands that by assassinating Gandhi, he will release the public and lead them towards a violent uprising.
But after the assassination, as the prison guards took great pleasure in teasing and toying with Godse by informing him that nobody had been taken to the streets, there was silence for the two accused. While in court, Godse takes full responsibility for the assassination, which I found less altruistic and instead saw as an attempt by Godse to take full credit for the assassination to solidify his legacy.
Playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar's use of comedy, which at times purposefully and skillfully allows the actors to break the fourth wall, adds an additional theatrical dimension that allows the narrative to connect with its audience. What a play like The Father and the Assassin teaches us is that no matter how much history we think we know, there are always narratives that are maligned or simply muted from our understanding.
"We’re able to appreciate this more due to the unforgettable company that injects a remarkable sense of humour and fun into the piece."
For any theatre on this scale, it needs a director who not only brings the unique vision that is etched into every word of a text like this but is also someone who can build a deep level of trust between their company and audience alike. Indhu Rubasingham has a difficult task with The Father and The Assassin, as in order to do justice to both Godse and Gandhi’s histories, he has had to create multiple scenes and moments spread across multiple time lines that really illustrate the rich cultural and political events. This reaches a climax during the flashback to the Salt March's, which is a moment unto itself which is beautifully uplifted by Rajha Shakiry’s impressive, inventive, and creative set and complimented by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Alexander Caplan’s sound design. The team is not just guided exceptionally well by their director, but there is a creative connection that is impossible to ignore that emanates from the company.
Abeysekera, from the moment we are introduced to him to his last seconds on stage, is a revelation. In playing Godse, he has created a balance that never allows the audience to feel animosity or sympathy towards him, but instead we really try to understand him and his motivation. We’re able to appreciate this more due to the unforgettable company that injects a remarkable sense of humour and fun into the piece.
It was only after reading the programme that I discovered that Gopal Vinayak Godse, the brother of Nathuram Godse, was also involved in the assassination plot. Even though Narayan Apte played a significant role in the assassination and was hanged alongside Godse, I feel that it would have added to the wider narrative if more focus was placed on the fact that Godse's brother was involved. There is a scene towards the end of the play where, before Godse is hanged, Godse parents come to see him, distraught and confused. They explain that they had to book their tickets under false names, and as they stand there, trying to come to terms with what their son has done and what this will mean to their family, omitting the second son's involvement was a valuable opportunity to give greater insight into the assassins, and the plot was a mistake, and Gopal Godse would live until 2005. With this being a long, patient, and beautifully detailed play, I think when people read the programme and look into the history, they will ask why more of the Godse’s family wasn't included.
This, to me, is a small, personal addition that I felt would have greatly added to the text and the narrative, but it equally doesn’t dilute the power of this production.