National Theatre, Olivier – until 18 June 2022
Anupama Chandrasekhar’s new play about Nathuram Godse, the man who murdered – assassinated – Mohandas Gandhi in 1948, is an alarmingly current piece of work, but you wouldn’t know that from watching it. Directed by Indhu Rubasingham and designed by Rajha Shakiry, it is an impressive production that fills the always-tricky spaces of the Olivier Theatre with action and a sense of history. The history is also, at times a problem.
The play traces Godse’s life from his childhood, of which little is known other than the arresting fact that his parents brought him up as a girl, believing the male line to be cursed after three older brothers died. Later, he became a follower of Gandhi, and his doctrine of ahimsa, or non-violent protest. However, when the 1947 partition of India led to the deaths of possibly two million people, Godse and his friend Narayan Apte, by now followers of Hindu nationalist leader Vinayak Savarkar, blamed Gandhi and shot him dead. It wasn’t their first attempt. They had failed 10 days earlier, but Gandhi, who appeared to almost invite death, continued to refuse security.
On Shakiry’s vast, ramped revolve set and woven cotton backdrop – which could be an early 1970s RSC stage design – this complex story is told, covering nearly 40 years in the growth of the independence movement under Gandhi’s inspired leadership alongside Nehru and Jinnah.
It is a history lesson, and there are periods where it seems the drama is telling rather than showing us what happened. The first half seems a little thin, filled out with fictionalised scenes dramatising Godse’s childhood. The drama, with interactions between characters who seem real, and whose responses we can’t predict, delivers more of a punch.
The performances are a delight. Paul Bazely’s Gandhi is a triumph, transforming incrementally from the younger, less familiar figure of the 1910s to the stopped, unmistakable figure who became an international icon. He makes us believe entirely in him. Shubham Saraf, as Godse, is entitled and attention seeking. He controls the history as it takes place around him with a flick of the hand, stopping the action when it isn’t telling the story he wants until he finds that events are no longer in his control.
Ayesha Darka as Aai, a fictional character from his childhood, takes the story from him. Sagar Arya, as Savarkar, is a strong portrayal of a thoroughly unpleasant character, while Marc Elliott’s Pandit Nehru and Irvine Iqbal’s Mohammed Jinnah work hard to become more than necessary historical figures. Nadeem Islam stands out as a school watchman who falls fouls of the British, despite his seven children who he charmingly recreates through gestures as a long line, decreasing in size. Ankur Bahi is also engaging, both as Godse’s childhood friend and as the amusingly camp tailor for whom he works.
However, there is a limit to how much value we can gain from a play that tells an important story – the atrocities committed by the British in India and the terrifying consequences of partition being not nearly well enough known – but only partially. No explanation is really offered for the 1947 death toll the causes of which are complex, as with any civil war. The decision to focus on Godse is controversial. His reputation has, astonishingly, been on the rise in the Hindu nationalist atmosphere of Narendra Modhi’s India. This may provide a justification for reexamining him, and showing him to be what he was: deluded, inadequate and inconsequential. However, without background reading the significance and possibly the point of this play is easily missed. Instead, it is not obvious that we need a play to show us that a pair of notorious killers were, indeed, not pleasant people. Nor is it clear why the men who took Gandhi’s voice from him deserve to have their own given back to them.