The week in theatre: The Father and the Assassin; Celebrated Virgins; Legally Blonde

·5 min read

What a stirring moment at the National. Indhu Rubasingham’s wonderful production of The Father and the Assassin puts on stage an important piece of history, an arresting personal story and a vital, distinctive theatrical language.

Anupama Chandrasekhar, author of the explosive When the Crows Visit, has written the story of Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Gandhi. Or, rather, a version of the story: this is a first-person narrative, delivered with bias and embellishments. Tremendous Shubham Saraf – moving with casual fluidity, speaking with tumbling fluency – speaks to the audience like a standup: he cajoles, teases, sets out to bamboozle. His charm beats against increasingly toxic beliefs, as he seeks to convince – us and himself – that he was in the right to kill.

Godse was brought up as a girl for the first years of his life, his Brahmin parents believing their male babies were fatally doomed. When young, he was thought to be endowed with prophetic powers, consulted as an oracle. He worked as a tailor. He fell under the spell of the Hindu nationalist Vinayak Savarkar, embodied by Sagar Arya as an adamantine figure whose voice resounds like the clap of doom.

The tread of the action is soft, and the more terrible when it culminates in violence

It is extraordinary how immediate and yet how large the effects are. Saraf is direct, idiosyncratic, personal, but appears against a huge panorama; a sense of multititudes is conjured without resort to a pantomime crowd. Rajha Shakiry (set and costumes), Alexander Caplen, Siddharta Khosla and David Shrubsole (sound) and Oliver Fenwick (lighting) together create a transporting, engrossing design. Here is the shock of the subdued. The palette is gentle: dun and sandy brown. A commanding image hangs over the undulating sweep of the stage: great spikes of thread start from one side; on the other is a woven cloth; in the middle, a half-made fabric – is it unravelling or being created?

A soft drumming and distant hum rise and fall; the tread of the action is soft, and the more terrible when it culminates in violence. Gesture dances throughout, giving each event a distinctive look and movement. I have never seen hands move so expressively: twisting, jabbing, opening and closing like shells in water, sometimes emphasising, sometimes arguing with a speaker’s words. Was there a special hand choreographer?

Other underexplored biographies spring to life in Katie Elin-Salt’s Celebrated Virgins. In 1778, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, teacher and pupil, ran away from their grand families and Irish society to make a home together in Llangollen. They sought isolation to pursue their passion for each other and create an ideal existence. They read avidly, gardened abundantly, and cultivated particular enthusiasms: for aeolian harps (otherworldly notes trickle through the evening), snake charmers and underground passages. Their “Fairy Palace of the Vale” rapidly became less than secluded, visited by the Duke of Wellington, Wordsworth and Josiah Wedgwood; they were both courted and sneered at, and remained together till death.

In her marvellous 1971 book The Ladies of Llangollen, Elizabeth Mavor explored these lives as a “romantic friendship”. Elin-Salt’s play is more palpitating, more narrowly insistent on sexual yearning and the importance of acknowledging exchanges which were once forbidden. Vibrantly directed by Eleri B Jones, with Victoria John a touching Eleanor (eyeglass, waistcoat, inhibited) and Heather Agyepong an ardent Sarah, the play excavates yet another concealed history: that of the women’s maid. Emma Pallant superbly delivers a marvellous speech in which a fond eyebrow is raised at the couple’s sensitivities: “Who carried their bags?”

Holly Pigott’s design captures the expansion of the ladies’ lives as they make their own world. A dark, constrained, unyielding place turns into an Eden, brightly spilling over with flowers and greenery. All this in a temporary space, domed like a tent, as the main Clwyd building is being redeveloped. The ladies’ cottage is about 20 miles away from Mold: their story feels local. As so often, the more local and specific, the more general the resonance.

Who would have thought that the sylvanly sedate Regent’s Park Open Air theatre would become a place of change? Who would have thought it would be full of pink squealers? Lucy Moss, co-creator of Six, has brought new bend and snap to Legally Blonde (music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, book by Heather Hach). Her buoyant production fills the stage – liberatingly – not with spindly white limbs but with round and brown and black and gay and trans bodies.

What better show to make a traditional chorus line look dull and unvaried? After all, this is the musical in which the sneered-at, golden-haired heroine – “Is this the face of Harvard law school?” – triumphantly proves that what counts as silliness in a woman is just as compatible with legal shrewdness as the doltishness routinely accepted from a chap (bread-roll chucking, anyone?).

Musically, this is monotonous, without a tune to tuck into a teeny-tiny handbag, but the lyrics and dialogue are zippy and shrewd: one girl whisks around spraying a scent called “Subtext”; our heroine puts forward the legal argument that wanking is “sperm abandonment”. Belting out the numbers in the role made famous by Reese Witherspoon in the 2001 film, Courtney Bowman lives up to the sumptuous comic promise of her performance as Anne Boleyn in Six. Lauren Drew supplies a breathtaking singing-while-skipping feat, and Nadine Higgin a knockout voice. Ellen Kane’s choreography spins the action round in nonstop camp capers, with the crucial pet dogs played by wiggling humans. Everything is as popping and pink as bubblegum.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Father and the Assassin ★★★★★
Celebrated Virgins ★★★★
Legally Blonde ★★★★

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