A controversial play on the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi performed at the prestigious National Theatre in London has fared well at the box office and has even received praise in reviews in a section of the British press.
A spokeswoman for the National Theatre indicated the stage show had achieved a “a seated capacity of 80 per cent throughout the course of the run” since last month.
The main character in the production is not Gandhi, but his killer Nathuram Godse. The depiction unfolds into a portrayal of Gandhi versus Godse ideologies, leaving comment on them somewhat unanswered, unless the audience is expected to reach a conclusion from the cacophony of Godse’s role.
“Any dramatization of history requires a degree of imaginative licence of the playright,” argued the writer of the play Chennai-born Anupama Chandrasekhar in a note in the programme for the performance. That’s fair enough. She continued: “This is not to say that the play is primarily a work of fiction. Rather, I have used history as the frame within which I could track the trajectories of both Gandhi and Godse, and therefore, of India.”
Admittedly, not a great deal is known that widely about Godse compared to a universal figure like Gandhi. This is but natural. How can a school dropout, who worked briefly as a tailor’s assistant and was in Chandrasekhar’s words “a small-time party worker” of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and then the assassin of the father of the Indian nation be of general curiosity other than his unspeakable crime?
Chandrasekhar described it as “this battle between the Champion of Ahimsa and his very opposite”. Can hate and violence be on the same pedestal as Gandhi’s peace and non-violence? She acknowledged in reference to two million people dying at the time of the partition of India: “The fact that Bengal was fairly peaceful is testament to how much people respected Gandhi and how big India’s loss was with his death.”
Yet, she leaves the question suspended on stage and indeed permits Godse the last word. The uninitiated could leave the hall a little baffled between right and wrong, the hero and the villain. They could even wonder if today’s extremism is justified because of the death sentence handed down to Godse.
Chandrasekhar highlights the story of Godse being brought up as a girl by his parents. Is there a suggestion that the psychological injury thus committed on him at childhood was the cause of him going astray? Grounds for what he did? It’s a risky territory to venture into without scientific substantiation.
“When it comes to taboo-busting, Anupama Chandrasekhar has form,” wrote The Guardian. Its sister paper on Sundays The Observer was not as enthusiastic. It said, “this is a first-person narrative, delivered with bias and embellishments”.
Financial Times called it an “exhilarating, epic play”. But the Daily Telegraph defined it as a “dramatically slight study of Gandhi and his killer”. The New European summed up, “it’s hard not to feel Chandrashekhar has bitten off more than she can chew”.
Shubham Saraf as Godse, Paul Bazely as Gandhi and Sagar Arya as Vinayak Savarkar, not to mention Ayesha Dharkar as Godse’s mother and Sid Sagar as Narayan Apte, catch the eye. Director Indhu Rubasingham brings script together in parts quite arrestingly.
A rumour doing the rounds was the Indian government refused permission for the play to be staged in India. This was dismissed by the National Theatre spokeswoman who said: “There has never been any plan or intention to produce the play at another venue in the UK or abroad.”
The play’s current run finishes this weekend.