Review: The Father and the Assassin, Olivier Theatre ★★★★☆

Even with a host of stars set to grace London stages in the coming months – Kenneth Branagh, Kristen Scott Thomas, Lily James and David Tennent to name just a few – it will be difficult for anyone to better Hiran Abeysekera’s compelling turn as Nathuran Godse, the man who assassinated Mahātmā Gandhi in Anupama Chandrasekhar’s historical epic The Father and the Assassin.

The production returns to the Olivier Theatre following its initial run last year which saw Shubham Saraf praised for his performance in the lead role. Those who have seen both can argue over who played it, but there is no doubt that Abeysekera’s performance is at once magnetic and commanding.

Chandrasekhar’s deftly tracks the rise of Gandhi and Indian nationalism, interwoven (much like designer Rajha Shakiry’s backdrop) with the story of Godse’s life from his unique upbringing and his turn to violence which culminates in a terrifying call to arms, delivered with lashings of vitriol by Abeysekera.

We move back and forth in the timeline and between Godse’s life and the broader political events of the period. There is a risk that the plot line becomes confused with this style but director Indu Rubasingham maintains the interest and the clarity of the storytelling, which manages to cram a generation’s worth of action into two and a half hours without feeling rushed.

Abeysekera is not the only star here – Paul Bazely handles the challenge of portraying Gandhi with ease, recreating his look and mannerisms without descending into mimicry and the supporting cast are strong throughout – but in those final moments of the play it is the power of Abeysekera we feel as Godse sweeps the rug from under the audience’s feet with his hate-filled speech and we realise we have been charmed by a murderer who has only hate to sell.

The Father and The Assassin is at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre until 14 October.