Day 3: “Life should stop until we’re free”

Image source: Shakespeare’s Globe

My second Festival of Independence evening of the week, following on from Nitin Sawhney’s concert on Monday, is Tanika Gupta’s new play Lions and Tigers. I’m ashamed to admit that before all of the commemorations this month I had no real idea about what actually went on at the time. In fact, I’ve given myself a bit of a crash course on the Partition of India over recent days, as I’d somehow never heard of it. Being a cricket fan, I knew there were deep-rooted tensions between India and Pakistan, with violence often breaking out – but I just thought that was due to them bordering one another, rather than the deadlier history that I now know.

As for Indian independence, the only person I could associate with it was Gandhi. Obviously there were far more people involved, and that’s where Tanika Gupta’s play comes in. It tells the story of Dinesh Gupta (Tanika’s great uncle), who was a freedom fighter involved in the struggle for independence – he wrote 93 letters from prison, which help to give an insight into his character. Letters are an important part of this play, as some from Nehru, Gandhi and Bose are featured.

Raj Bajaj, Tony Jayawardena and Shubham Saraf in rehearsal for Lions and Tigers
Photo credit: Helena Miscioscia

It was the very first performance last night, so I’m not going to give you a full review – but I am absolutely going to go back, so keep an eye out for another post after that! I’ll be interested to see how it evolves over the course of its short run; in my view it doesn’t really need to be improved, but it’s always fascinating to see how actors develop their performance as they become more and more familiar with the piece and their part in it.

The story follows the fight for India to become independent of Britain in the inter-war years, leading up to the Round Table Conferences that began in 1930. Dinesh Gupta and his friends Benoy Basu and Badal Gupta joined Bose’s Bengal Volunteers to help India gain freedom, and the trio were eventually given the mission of assassinating a prominent figure in the Writers’ Building in Kolkata – Dinesh ended up in prison. These events are set against Nehru (who later became India’s first Prime Minister) trying to decide whether to align himself with the non-violent Gandhi, or the more aggressive stance of Bose.

Esh Alladi in rehearsal for Lions and Tigers
Photo credit: Helena Miscioscia

It’s a staggering production. The candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a perfect setting, transporting you back in time and allowing for innovative use of additional candles to create something truly beautiful. And the performances are equally impressive; Tony Jayawardena plays two very different characters (Dinesh’s brother Jyotish, and Subhash Bose) to great effect, and Shalini Peiris is wonderfully relatable as Kamala (Jyotish’s wife and lifelong friend of Dinesh). Esh Alladi’s physical transformation into Mahatma Gandhi is astounding, and Alladi imbues him with a sharp wit as well as his famous peaceful mantra. As Dinesh, Shubham Saraf is sublime – his passion for the cause seeps through, making him both ordinary and extraordinary. His voice cracking as he recounts his final letter to his mother is truly heartbreaking.

That’s all for me in terms of the Festival of Independence, as I’m back to the Mexican Revolution again for day 4… If you’re on Twitter, though, there is a chance for you to win a copy of Tanika Gupta’s Lions and Tigers script. And there’s still time for you to enter my Shakespeare quiz to win a groundling ticket!

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