The Father and the Assassin – National Theatre Olivier

Nadeem Islam and Shubham Saraf in The Father and the Assassin

Generally speaking, for a theatre equipped with such a muscular infrastructure (physical, in the stage revolves and fly floors, and creative, as Britain’s national theatre), the Olivier has a lower hit rate than one might expect for new plays. The sheer size of the auditorium is a potential struggle; most stories, through little fault of their own, would simply not be big enough to fill the space. Yet here Anupama Chandrasekhar has found the alchemical mixture required, delivering a sharp script which is matched by Indhu Rubasingham’s brilliant production and Shubham Saraf’s bravura lead performance, to create the best new play I have seen in this space.

Chandrasekhar utilises the arena-like quality of the Olivier from the off, with Saraf’s opening monologue jokingly engaging the audience (to the point of exchanging brief, gig-like chat with some stalls-dwellers) and recruiting our complicity. He accosts us: ‘What are you staring at? Have you never seen a murderer up close before?’ Saraf plays Nathuram Godse, a man about whom ‘not much is known’ (by Chandrasekhar’s account in her ‘Note on the Play’), his nervy demeanour offset by a sometimes swaggeringly narcissistic confidence. His claim to notoriety is that, in 1948, he killed Mahatma Gandhi. The Father and the Assassin follows these two characters – Gandhi, popularly known as the father of the nation, and Godse, his killer – weaving their lives together into a complex exploration of radicalisation, colonial occupation, and the ethics of violence.

Saraf carries these weighty themes with a compelling lightness, and the show is so delightful largely because it leans so heavily into comedy, as well as containing moments of sheer weirdness. From the start, Godse mocks ‘that fawning Attenborough film’ with Ben Kingsley – promising to show a stranger and dubiously more accurate version of Gandhi’s life and death, alongside his own. Godse appears to be narrating from some sort of afterlife, where – at the end – he bumps into Gandhi again. He will never be free of the man that once enthralled him, then disappointed him. Meanwhile, Gandhi was barely aware of Godse’s existence.

Ayesha Dharker in The Father and the Assassin

The play is very interested in the way in which history is inscribed. Godse’s implicit justification for holding our attention and being the subject of a play at all is that he is ‘etched in India’s history’. Yet Godse speaks to his discomfort with the moniker ‘assassin’ – ‘a word that gives the killer a high status because of the one he killed’. Godse prefers ‘murderer’, imagining himself to have gained such a status on merit. The obvious rejoinder is that, of course, his historical importance is bound up in this singular act of murder. The imprint left upon history is, for the most part, not quite so indelible though as the imagery of etching suggests. Indeed, the play stages an attempt – ostensibly by Godse himself – to rehabilitate his actions and reputation, rewriting a history that sees him only as the evil killer of Gandhi, rather than a coherent political thinker. Chandrasekhar cleverly leads us up this fraught garden path, before giving us a firm reminder of who has taken us by the hand.

Her theme is beautifully mapped out in Rajha Shakiry’s set design, the backdrop containing a vast loom in mid-weave which bears down on stage events. The right-hand part is tightly wound, the rest yet to take shape – ambiguously in the middle of being made or possibly being undone. It is a literal reference to Godse’s profession (a tailor), yet it balances the play’s presentation of the production of narrative and history as an ongoing process with the image of nation potentially about to unravel – as partition (in 1947) separates one into two. History is certainly more porous and malleable than Godse’s images of ‘etch[ing]’; the thread may be the same, but it can be stitched into many shapes and patterns by a skilled weaver.

The most interesting gesture of the play is the bait and switch that it pulls close to the interval. Chandrasekhar has written a captivating Godse, interpreted with such tremendous lightness and force by Saraf, and we follow the breadcrumbs of his inchoate political philosophy. The moral bind at the crux of the play is the danger that virtuous non-violence (or ahimsa, as Gandhi called it) will allow any authorities willing to use violence to crush you almost by default. In many ways, it is a debate between Kantian morality and consequentialism, the former sitting uncomfortably with the practicalities of revolutionary social change. Gandhi’s insistence on keeping his hands clean could lead only to more suffering; Godse argues he is giving up without the necessary fight. For most of the first half, this perspective is thoroughly and rigorously considered. The audience seems intended to share Godse’s aching frustration at Gandhi’s ineffectual moments, and though the murder we know is coming never really seems justified, we at least understand Godse’s viewpoint.

Yet his budding political zeal leads him to befriend Vinayak Savarkar, who visits the tailors where Godse works. Eventually, Savarkar begrudgingly agrees to take Godse and his friend Narayan Apte under his wing, preaching revolutionary ideas to them in a way that initially rings with a logic that, if not convinces, at least coheres – dovetailing neatly with Godse’s frustrations over Gandhi’s methods. Yet his ideas start to sound alarm bells with the suggestion that ‘we are too bloody welcoming of other cultures’. Soon after, there is a sudden jolt as we realise the true political ends of Savarkar’s thinking. ‘The Germans have it right. The key to nation building is homogeneity’, Savarkar claims. ‘One culture, one nation. The minority culture must embrace the practices of the majority culture.’ The invocation of Nazi fascism looms as a clear warning about the dangers of pursuing a Hindu nation, without pluralism. The aim is not peace or liberation, but authoritarian policing of identity.

Paul Bazely in The Father and the Assassin

The play is politically searing. It stages issues still discussed in contemporary Indian politics. In 2019, Narender Modi distanced himself from some of his party’s candidates who called Godse ‘a patriot’. Yet it also carries a more UK-specific message about how support for an imposed homogenised monoculture can lead to fascism far quicker than you might expect. The contemporariness is signalled in overt, comic references to the political presence, such as Brexit – with Godse narrating from a distinctly transtemporal and transcendental place – as well as being folded into themes which chime with undeniable relevance. This breadth of scope lends the play a real epic quality, utilising a complex history (underrepresented on the British stage) to tell a sharply contemporary story, while Saraf’s personable style ensures it remains intimate – even as Godse loses our sympathy somewhat in the second half, unable to recruit our support for his more radical, or radicalised ideas. Instead, Godse is sharply upbraided – by his family, friends and Gandhi himself, played with a commanding air of calm by Paul Bazely, on the verge of his murder – for lacking personal responsibility and failing to amount to anything. Fascistic ideas, Chandrasekhar implies, lash out at others in order to excuse the moral and personal weaknesses of the individuals who hide behind them.

A great play is rarely the last word in a conversation but a substantial step forward in a discussion with the baton passed to us by the end. Such is the case here. We are left with a challenge from Godse: ‘A Gandhi is no use to you when tomorrow’s battles are fought with deadlier weapons. No, you’ll need a Godse.’ Godse is never treated wholly as a recurring villain we must repeatedly endeavour to prevent or a necessary instrument of violence, but remains a complex mixture of zeal, anger and narcissism. Yet we should clearly be wary of believing too completely the narrative he weaves.

The Father and the Assassin

Written by Anupama Chandrasekhar, Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Set and Costume Design by Rajha Shakiry, Lighting Design by Oliver Fenwick, Movement Direction by Lucy Cullingford, Composition by Siddhartha Khosla, Musical Direction by David Shrubsole, Sound Design by Alexander Caplen, Fight Direction by Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown, Dialect Coaching by Shereen Ibrahim, Company Voice Work by Jeannette Nelson, Staff Direction by Gitika Buttoo, Dramaturg Emily McLaughlin, Starring Sagar Arya, Ankur Bahl, Paul Bazely, Ayesha Dharker, Marc Elliott, Ravin J Ganatra, Dinita Gohil, Irvine Iqbal, Nadeem Islam, Tony Jayawardena, Sid Sagar, Shubham Saraf, Peter Singh, Maanuv Thiara, Ralph Birtwell, Halema Hussain, Sakuntala Ramanee, Anish Roy, Akshay Shah
Reviewed 11th June 2022

The Wife of Willesden – Kiln

Clare Perkins, Marcus Adolphy, Andrew Frame, George Eggay, Theo Solomon and Scott Miller in The Wife of Willesden

Arguably, the best way of making old texts, written in unfamiliar vernaculars, engaging to contemporary audiences is to make them funny. Yet better than simply sprinkling new jokes onto otherwise dry material is finding the comic truth of the original and exposing it for a new audience.

This is precisely what Zadie Smith has brilliantly achieved in The Wife of Willesden, a reworking of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ from The Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th century. This new piece was commissioned to celebrate Brent being awarded the title London Borough of Culture in 2020 (out of the 32 eligible). Hence, it is no longer set on the road to Canterbury, but in a very different destination of many a pilgrimage: the pub. Specifically, the Sir Colin Campbell pub in Kilburn – directly across the road, in fact, from the Kiln Theatre. Smith’s premise is that one evening, while she was in the pub, Polly the pub landlord announced a lock-in, during which everyone told stories. The best will receive the coveted prize of a full English breakfast the next morning, on the house – and with chips.

Already, this seems like a winning frame for a similar portmanteau to The Canterbury Tales. Yet, as the ‘Author’ tells us – Crystal Condie, playing a slightly neurotic character, recognisable as a version of Smith herself – most of the stories told were not worth hearing. The speakers were: ‘Mostly men. Not because they had better stories but because they had no doubt we should hear them.’ Yet, one story stands out to the fictionalised Smith – as the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ has to many readers of Chaucer. Here, it is told by Alvira, the Wife of Willesden – so named for her five marriages to five different men.

Crystal Condie in The Wife of Willesden

We spend most of the play being delighted by the Prologue, which utilises Chaucer magnificently to mount a ripe satire of the lives of present-day women, and the actions of men. Smith recognises the often-riotous comedy of The Canterbury Tales, and garnishes original jokes with contemporary references. Yet most of the political substance to the play’s critiques has its roots in a text over 600 years old; references to men’s rights activists and Jordan Peterson only serve Smith’s source with added relatability. One of the most striking – and entertaining – revisions is Smith’s retooling of Chaucer’s critique of religious hypocrisy over gender inequality (complete with wry Biblical analysis) as a rejoinder to the contemporary Christianity of Alvira’s aunt and her aunt’s preacher.

It is clearly a work of exceptional intelligence, yet Indhu Rubasingham’s production makes sure The Wife of Willesden is a pleasure to watch – with belly laughs throughout, rather than wry chuckles. When Biblical figures appear – including God, St Paul and ‘Black Jesus’ – their holiness is conveyed with a gold serving tray held up behind their heads, like a saint in a stained-glass window. Wry touches abound; in a whistle-stop tour of historical female murderers, Rubasingham dramatises Clytaemnestra’s murder of her husband in the bath with the scrapy string stabs from Psycho’s shower scene. A level of detail and care have been lavished upon the production, which the text absolutely deserves.

At the heart of this all, selling the play as the absolute triumph it is, is Clare Perkins. She is utterly compelling as Alvira, holding the audience in the palm of her hand in every moment – her comic bravado played simultaneously with something more nuanced and human. Ultimately, she makes the play feel extremely alive – as if we are in the pub with her, an illusion further sustained by Robert Jones’s remarkably transformative set.

The evening and is never anything less than engaging. However, there is the occasional longueur. Smith plays on the relative length (‘over 8,000 lines’) of the Prologue compared to the Wife of Bath/Willesden’s Tale itself. Yet though comparatively shorter, for me, it is the Tale where the play loses pace. By comparison, Alvira’s own life is just a bit more interesting.

The tale itself represents a curious challenge to the contemporary reader or listener. Like the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, there is an ostensible feminism to it – though not one exactly calibrated to modern-day sensibilities. In the original Chaucer, a queen presents a man with what is essentially a riddle – what is it that every woman wants? In return for the correct answer, he will receive a stay of execution; if he fails to answer within a year, he will be killed. Especially given the one-year reprieve, the tale reads like a feminist echo of Gawain and the Green Knight – except the punishment is not due to arrogance per se. The man is a rapist.

A cynical reading of the original Chaucer could interpret it as the story of a rapist escaping justice on a technicality, before being rewarded with a marriage to a chaste, loyal, beautiful woman. Yet Smith chooses to smooth out the harsh edges of the tale, gently meditating on the relationship of the state, prisons and capital punishment to feminist justice. Queen Nanny – as she is here – opines that ‘capital punishment will only go so far’; instead, she is interested in ‘restorative justice’. His rape of a ‘virgin, with no interest’ in him is treated as a crime not only against the individual, but against women as a whole. Thus, he is instructed to understand ‘who you hurt and why’. There begins his quest into discovering what women most desire.

Scott Miller and Clare Perkins in The Wife of Willesden

Unfortunately, the quest is perhaps the least successful part of The Wife of Willesden. Perhaps the production knows this, never trying harder to engage its audience visually than here – with giant palm trees appearing almost miraculously out of nowhere, and the questing man wandering through the audience to ask if they know what women most want. Yet it feels a bit like we are treading water, the script lacking the wit and force of argument present earlier in the play.

What Smith is holding off revealing is Chaucer’s answer to the queen’s question: that women want men to ‘submit to their wives’ wills’ (as Smith writes). This neat inversion of Paul’s sentiments in Ephesians is a satisfying answer, met with a roar of laughter in the theatre. Yet this is the one place where advance knowledge of the original text hinders the play. The reveal is played quite similarly to the original – and arrived a little too slowly.

Also unsurprising is Chaucer’s sting in the tale. An old woman promises to tell him the secret if he agrees to one request from her. He agrees but does not check what she wants in advance. And so it is revealed, too late, that she wants to marry him. He reluctantly accepts, bound by his word, leading on to the final twist of the story. His wife tells him that she could transform into someone beautiful, but would be unfaithful to him, or she could remain ‘old and ugly’, though chaste. After agonising for a while, he remembers what he has learned and suggests she chooses – out of love for him. As a result, she transforms into someone both beautiful and chaste – his internal transformation mirrored by her external one. Smith has the ‘Old Wife’ transform into Alvita – with her ‘fabulous, thick, middle-aged beauteousness’. The result is a partial reworking, skewering some of the original text’s assumptions about age and beauty, while also playing out the original beats largely unaltered. Though smart choices are made – resetting the tale from Arthurian England to 18th century Jamaica, for instance – there has not been quite the same energy directed at updating this part, than there is so brilliantly at the rest of the play.

These criticisms however are slight compared to the scale of invention on the page and the stage, and the tour de force of Clare Perkins’ leading role. Smith even takes the opportunity to pre-empt and respond to criticism, in a brilliant version of Chaucer’s ‘Retraction’ – in which he accepted responsibility for various alleged failures in The Canterbury Tales and the rest of his work. Here, Smith apologises for the ‘cultural appropriation’, ‘dodgy sex’, and ‘the existential bleakness’ of respective past novels, humblebrags about setting the play in verse (‘No more couplets… That shit’s exhausting to write’) and attempts to credit Chaucer with anything we enjoyed about the experience. The posture is brilliantly in keeping with her source material and lends an already hilarious show a perfectly judged touch of the meta – never tipping into overplayed or smug. Smith’s confessions and apologies are ultimately drowned out by music and dance; she recognises her foremost purpose is perhaps to entertain, which The Wife of Willesden does in spades.

The Wife of Willesden

Written by Zadie Smith, Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Design by Robert Jones, Lighting Design by Guy Hoare, Composition and Sound Design by Ben and Max Ringham, Starring Clare Perkins, Marcus Adolphy, Jessica Clark, Crystal Condie, George Eggay, Andrew Frame, Scott Miller, Hussina Raja, Theo Solomon, Ellen Thomas
Reviewed 16th November 2021