“What are you staring at? Have you never seen a murderer up close before?” Ever since her startlingly assured 2007 debut “Free Outgoing,” shrewd playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar has calmly been breaking rules to winning dramatic effect. Making her outstanding National Theatre debut with “The Father and the Assassin,” a play about the murder of Mahatma Gandhi, she continues that process by wrong-footing the audience with that opening line. It’s delivered not with expected threat but winning charm. Within seconds, armed with Chandrasekhar’s writing and director Indhu Rubasingham’s expansive production, leading actor Shubham Saraf has the audience in the palm of his hand.
From that moment, the audience is prepared for the unexpected and it looks like taking sides is going to be a fascinatingly complicated business. And so it proves, not least because with Saraf’s character announcing his guilt from the word go, this is, audaciously, a murder mystery minus the mystery.
The question being asked is not whodunnit, but why-did-he? Although, on the face of it, the answer would appear to be embedded in its place and time, this is equally a play that speaks to the present. Chandrasekhar’s play centers around the assassination of the father of the Indian nation and is set against India’s increasingly fierce struggle for independence, but its portrait of extremism and its roots resonates in contemporary politics across the world.
That’s one reason Rubasingham has wisely elected to present the play in the Olivier, the National’s largest space, home to epics such as the original production of “War Horse.” Mostly made up of relatively small dialogue scenes, the play’s detailed discussions are about decisions affecting the lives of millions across the Indian subcontinent, not to mention the play’s three time periods. All that needs space.
The handsome production oozes confidence from the opening image. Design and direction are in ideal harmony with designer Rajha Shakiry’s giant sculptural piece of traditional khadi weaving glowing beneath Oliver Fenwick’s beautifully angled lighting. Together they dominate and control the abstract set. Beyond a few props and the occasional small set piece to pin down a necessary location, Rubasingham bans literal representation. With her foot firmly on the dramatic pedal and constantly utilizing the theater’s giant revolve, she ensures that individual scenes, spaces and arguments glide effortlessly into one another. In a history play such as this, in which necessary detailed explanation is essential, that momentum is a boon.
There is a great deal of exposition: historical, political and personal. The all-too-prevalent, traditional technique for that is to find excuses for characters to explain things unnecessarily to one another so as to provide audiences with vital information. There is almost none of that here. Instead, the handling of information is done in a faster, completely upfront way with Saraf’s character, Nathuram Godse, serving as not just the murderer but the narrator too. It’s so bald a solution that it shouldn’t work, but it does, not least because his direct address is laced with engaging wit.
As both the explainer and the character, he takes us from being a 7-year-old child, through his life as a fervent follower of Gandhi to his complete change of heart via his absolute rejection of Gandhi’s non-violent protest movement, through his final moments at the age of 39 and up to his current perspective.
Aware that telling the tale from Godse’s perspective is dangerously one-sided, Chandrasekar doesn’t simply present opposing political perspectives via other characters. She creates a childhood friend, Vimila (Dinita Gohill, perky and pointed) to later interrogate (to his fury) his role and memory as narrator.
Nicely detailed characterizations abound elsewhere, especially from Paul Bazely’s piercing Gandhi. He’s presented as the traditional white-clad man of peace, but with all the requisite anger that leads him to his political and literal journeys.
There’s nice work too from Ankur Bahl’s neat, pert and long-suffering tailor; Sid Sagar gleaming as Godse’s zealous partner-in-crime; and a fiercely determined Ayesha Dharker as Godse’s mother. After losing each of her three boys, she initially brings her child up as a girl so as not to displease the goddess who she believes took away her sons. This, and his medium-like connection to the goddess which makes him worshipped as a child, not only leads to gender confusion but to a total rejection of everything about that part of his life. It’s all part of a rightly complex portrait of a man whose convictions are always dangerously absolute.
From tossing out a pointed aside about “that phony Attenborough film with Sir Ben Kingsley” to suggesting, yet never over-expressing, the towering rage that consumes him, Saraf commands the vast stage with what appears to be absolutely no strain. That physical ease is not only compellingly attractive, but it also makes the space feel intimate as he brings the audience to him. He’s acting not at them and the other characters, but with them. It is a star-making performance in an ideal production of a play that turns a foregone conclusion into a dynamic evening of inevitable history that plays as a succession of surprises.