Theatre Review: The Father and the Assassin

Theatre Review: The Father and the Assassin
Courtesy: Marc Brenner

Starring: Shubham Saraf, Paul Bazely, Ayesha Dharker, Marc Elliot, Irvine Iqbal, Sagar Arya, Dinita Gohil, Ankur Bahl, Ravin J. Ganatra

Director: Indhu Rubasingham; Writer: Anupama Chandrasekhar

The life and enduring legacy of Mahatma Gandhi have inspired numerous artistic endeavours, from books and plays to the Richard Attenborough big screen epic. What sets this particular theatre effort apart is that it is the first of its kind to depict Indian history through the lens of the assassin hanged for the killing of the Father of the Indian Nation.

Nathu (Saraf) is a lost little boy who is led to believe he’s a girl by his superstitious and scarred parents, who have suffered the loss of three infant sons and vowed to the Goddess to raise their fourth as a girl if he survives. That pledge turns into a millstone around Nathu’s neck, who is forced to perform séance-like rituals for the villagers convinced he is touched by the Goddess.

This sense of childhood bewilderment finds some direction when South Africa returned lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Bazely) kicks off what will go on to become the world’s most well-known peaceful civil disobedience movement against oppressive colonial rule.

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Inspired by this simple man’s extraordinary achievement, Nathuram sets off on his very own personal path of revolution with a more masculine sounding name and declares to his parents that he will no longer play to their girlish tunes. After winning that small battle, a somewhat emboldened Nathuram lands up in school where he again tries his hand at civil disobedience to free the school watchman from arrest on a wrongful charge. However, his watchman friend dies in police custody and it sets Nathuram to switch paths to one that is diametrically opposed to Gandhian values of peace and non-violence.

The more powerless he feels to control things in his own “ordinary” life, the more his disaffection with Gandhi’s peaceful struggle intensifies. And, when a revolutionary named Vinayak Savarkar (Arya) lands up in his little town of Ratnagiri, Nathuram takes it as a sign of the mission he is destined for. It is a journey that will ultimately have a bloody end, with a shooting that will shake newly independent India to its very core.

The narrative style adopted by this spectacular theatrical production, framed by the handwoven khadi threads associated with Gandhi and effectively swept around by Rajha Shakiry’s revolving stage, is extremely effective. Saraf’s Nathuram, as the narrator desperately trying to keep control of his version of the “narrative”, sets the tone right at the start by deriding the audience for choosing to take this journey with a “murderer”.

What follows is a deftly woven sprint through history, sign posted by the most important chapters of the Indian national movement to free itself from British Raj. Some light-hearted moments are thrown in to ensure things don’t get overly oppressive despite the dark subject matter.

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Powerful performances by Sagar Arya as the sinister Savarkar and a rather disarming take on Gandhi by Paul Bazely form the perfect backdrop to an extremely disturbing second half. References to Brexit and Northern Ireland serve to hit home the harsh reality of humankind failing to learn from the mistakes of history. Dinita Gohil as Nathuram’s childhood friend and conscience in later life, Vimala, and Ayesha Dharker as Nathuram’s mother deserve a special mention in this all-round acting and direction triumph.

If the aim was to draw the audience into a well-woven narrative and leave them just a little queasy with the sheer starkness of the truth, then this play certainly hits the bullseye.

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