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 Normal Heart – National Theatre Olivier

Liz Carr and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart

Many plays based in facts set themselves up as attempts at finding or renegotiating justice. Such plays generally contain elements of journalistically composed evidence, an indictment of the culpable, and an attempt at memorialising real victims.

These plays take many different forms and concentrate of varying scales of injustice. Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 positions itself as an act of restorative feminist justice, re-examining the discovery of the DNA double-helix and placing scientist Rosalind Franklin at the heart of a previously male-dominated narrative. Lucy Prebble’s A Very Expensive Poison is a factual drama (albeit with delightful Vaudevillian diversions) about the murder (indeed, assassination) of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. The play offers itself as a self-consciously poor substitute for the indictment of Russia in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko that the UK government has refused to issue. Lucy Kirkwood’s Maryland – playing a short script-in-hand run at the Royal Court Upstairs at the moment – fuses semi-journalistic representations of (fictionalised, though very real) police failures in dealing with (and creating) violence against women with a howl of anger.

Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart – first staged in New York in 1985 and now revived in the UK for the first time since 1986 at the National’s Olivier theatre, attempts something similar – however the play itself and this new production appear to have subtly different aims.

The play and its landmark productions are almost model cases for theatre as both journalism and memorial. The 2011 revival notably ended with a list of names projected onto the walls around the stage, echoing the original 1985 run – during which the names of the dead were written around the theatre, the audience invited to contribute more if they had them each night. The play became a living record. As Emily Garside wrote last year in The Queer Review (shortly after his death), Kramer fused ‘art and activism’. The names were documentary, an interactive memorial, and a political declaration.

Perhaps unwilling to copy the simple but devastatingly effective design choices of previous versions (and hamstrung by the Olivier’s current in-the-round layout for which this production is poorly suited), Dominic Cooke instead begins with silence. The entire cast stand on stage, whilst a flame is light. This fire burns above the stage throughout the performance, recalling the eternal flames of war memorials. It sets an appropriately sombre tone, though lacks the double intentions of the list of names – an unspecific ritual remembrance rather than a document of the crisis.

Ben Daniels and Dino Fetscher in The Normal Heart

Robert Lepage and theatre company Ex Machina’s epic production The Seven Streams of the River Ota (originally staged in 1994 and refined ever since), which played in the National’s Lyttleton Theatre in early 2020 grappled with its roles documenting and remembering the Hiroshima bombing. One of its biggest problems was its focus on victims from an outsider’s perspective. It opens with an American soldier ‘discovering’ the injuries of a Hibakusha (a survivor of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945), and this act of peering in persists across its seven hours.

One of the play’s best ‘streams’ (the play is constructed from seven interwoven sections) foregrounds an American man, living with AIDS in the 1980s, choosing euthanasia as a quicker, more painless death. A few pages of text last almost an hour on stage, the silence leaving space for memorial. His individual death stands for many, and the audience are given time to cry. The events are not filtered through another set of western eyes.

In the penultimate stream, set on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, Lepage (surely deliberately) holds a minute of silence. On the face of it, this might be Lepage finally memorialising the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths, yet the silence is held for perfunctory reasons: an interview’s film crew need some room tone for their audio recording. It is perhaps a grimly ironic enaction the western world’s failure to consider the scale of destruction and harm caused in dropping of atomic bombs. But even this sympathetic reading doesn’t quite work. Even if this moment is both memorial and critique at once, the play is relatively toothless without proper restitution. Lepage and his company produced something documentary, even at times memorialising, but which failed to apportion blame, culpability or morality to the atomic bombing in whose wake its stories unfold.

A similar problem afflicts The Normal Heart – less problematic in its first performances, during which its purpose was rather different, but concerning now. The play is not completely without critique; newspaper owners are blamed for their silence, Kramer exposes the ostracising doctors could suffer for speaking out, and Reagan hardly gets off lightly. Yet the play largely assumes the awfulness of those with political power rather than unpicking it, instead surveying the internal dynamics of a community divided in fear. The suffering is heartrendingly visceral, but the characterisation feels somewhat thin – though there are terrific turns from Ben Daniels, Daniel Monks and Danny Lee Wynter in particular. The play lionises its lead’s singular fight for gay men to take individual responsibility for their actions, and essentially give up having sex. The result is a dialectical struggle between protagonist Ned Weeks’ anti-sex rationalism and the gay liberationist perspective, which locates gay sex itself as a site of political struggle. Thus, the very act is a form of praxis. At other points, the oppositional conflict is between Ned the vocal campaigner and the public silence of the closeted. Yet this feels like it lets the wrong people off the hook. The source of the shame never quite enters the frame. Ned’s individualistic campaigning feels a little misdirected and even ill-timed amid another pandemic in which individual responsibility has been used to divert criticism from government inaction.

Perhaps what feels most unfortunate about this production is the timing. Though originally scheduled to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the play, the Coronavirus pandemic delayed its appearance and gave it a grimly ironic parallel. However, it also makes the production feel like a sometimes-odd attempt at meta-journalism. There are points where the comparison feels somewhat apposite, and others where it just doesn’t work at all. Arifa Akbar rightly notes one of the major differences in The Guardian. Ned Weeks says that ‘We are living an epidemic while the rest of the world is going on around us. We are living a war while they are living in peace-time.’

Yet parts of the play feel frustratingly generalised. What appears to have been so effective in the original production is blunted here. The list of names was both memorial and journalism, whilst Kramer clearly is asking the audience to listen and to help him seek justice. Replacing the list of names with a flame is just one way the play has become less specific. If one so wished, the flame could be read as a more sweeping remembrance for the casualties of Coronavirus, or more cynically as an empty expression of LGBTQ solidarity without any commitment to present-day advocacy or struggle.

Ultimately, as the problems of Seven Streams remind us, an act of memorial must know who it is designed for – both living and dead. Dominic Cooke’s production does present the raw horror of the AIDS crisis. The reveal of a dark lesion upon a character’s body generates a sudden, seismic shift in tone here just as a similar moment does in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. That such a scene remains shocking rather than a formal cliché is a testament to the lack of such stories in the intervening 36 years. However, this production seems sparse, unmoored from its time period, yet also curiously dated. Is this a play remembering the tragedy of the AIDS pandemic, a rallying cry against contemporary crises in the LGBTQ community (see Hailey Bachrach’s excellent piece in Exeunt), or an attempt to understand our current circumstances living with Coronavirus? Perhaps these are the wrong questions to be asking, but the uncertainty of this production’s purpose cannot help but prompt them.

The Normal Heart

Written by Larry Kramer, Directed by Dominic Cooke, Starring Ben Daniels, Robert Bowman, Richard Cant, Liz Carr, Dino Fetscher, Daniel Krikler, Daniel Monks, Elander Moore, Luke Norris, Henry Nott, Jonathan Dryden Taylor, Samuel Thomas, Danny Lee Wynter
Reviewed 30th September 2021