'The Father and the Assassin' review – Hiran Abeysekera commands the stage in this gripping historical epic

Read our four-star review of powerful drama The Father and the Assassin, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, now in performances at the National Theatre to 14 October.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

An assassin shouldn’t be allowed to be so charming. Especially one who fought for the erasure of minority cultures and killed one of the most admired anti-colonialist civil rights activists of the 20th century. But it’s hard not to warm to a character with so much wit and energy and, who, when a childhood friend pops up to try to set the narrative record straight, complains about how she “keeps appearing like an unwanted apostrophe”.

Indian playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar’s darkly irreverent historical epic The Father and the Assassin was first performed last year featuring a highly acclaimed performance by Shubham Saraf in the lead role. This revival boasts another star-making performance, this time by Hiran Abeysekera.

As Nathuran Godse, killer of Mohandas Gandhi and the play’s narrator, he is thoroughly enjoying the attention and wants to be the kind of supervillain people love to hate. Abeysekera’s command of the Olivier stage is effortless, bringing real intimacy to a sweeping production and a presence that is both tough and effeminate, a small man determined to make a big impact.

Godse’s origin story was extraordinary. After losing three sons, his superstitious parents raised him as a girl. They also treated him as a cash cow by using him as a child oracle. After hero-worshipping Gandhi as a child, Godse started to turn against him and everything related to his childhood when he lost his connection with his personal goddess and was no longer “special”.

It’s not surprising that a confused sense of identity and being lied to drove him to absolutes – as a young man, he became a follower of Vinayak Savakar (Tony Jayawardena), whose brand of Hindu supremacy was influenced by Nazi Germany.

As Gandhi, Paul Bazely captures the famous mannerisms (familiar in the public consciousness in part thanks to “that fawning Richard Attenborough movie”); he is stooped and slightly twitchy, benevolent and paternal in his message of harmony between Hindus and Muslims but with a sense the anger underneath and with a touch of a cult leader as he recruits desperate agricultural workers to his cause.

Indhu Rubasingham’s masterful production involves a flow of cinematic movement that makes full use of the revolve with sequences depicting communities marching, celebrating, rioting. Rajha Shakiry’s backdrop of a partially woven sculptural textile (or perhaps it’s been unpicked) suggests an epic work in progress, and the multi-levelled landscape contains abstracted small villages containing whole worlds, enhanced by Oliver Fenwick’s ochre-toned lighting.

In a lesser production, the drier explanatory passages would likely be more exposed and Godse’s relationship with his partner-in-crime Narayan Apte (Sid Sagar) is only perfunctorily sketched. Raj Ghatak provides dry humour as the long-suffering Kishore, the tailor to whom Godse was apprenticed (and was a nightmare employee). It’s male-dominated, but Aysha Kala’s optimistic childhood friend Vimala provides a contrast to Godse’s single-minded extremism.

The most harrowing sequence depicting the Partition of India is told in matter-of-fact tones and is no less powerful for it. Godse compares Partition with Brexit, which raises a rueful laugh, but it shows that Brexit was absolutely tame compared with the bloodbath that the British unleashed on India and Pakistan. Peace should never be mistaken for weakness.

The Father and the Assassin is at the National Theatre through 14 October.

Photo credit: The Father and the Assassin (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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