The beauty of Chekhov and countering nationalism – in conversation with the rising British actor
The first thing you notice about Shubham Saraf is his eyes. Wide, mischievous and luminous grey-green irises. The second, when viewed from afar, is his ability to manipulate his body with striking fluidity, like a master puppeteer. I first met Saraf at University. He was in the year above, and even then it was clear the economics student who skipped lectures for theatre would go far. That has indeed been the case both on stage and screen. The past four years, even with the blip of the pandemic, have been busy for the magnetic British actor.
Starring as Ophelia in the 2018 cross-cast Hamlet at Shakespeare’s Globe and Nikolay Tuzenbach in the Almeida Theatre’s Three Sisters the following year, Saraf also appeared in the acclaimed 2021 National Theatre production of Romeo and Juliet alongside Jessie Buckley, Josh O’Connor and Tamsin Greig. Shooting in Bangkok throughout Covid for the Apple TV+ adaptation of Gregory David Robert’s best-selling book Shantaram, its 2022 release coincided with an incredible central turn in the National Theatre’s The Father and the Assassin. Commanding the stage for its near entire runtime of 2 hours, the award-nominated performance saw Saraf assume the role of Mahatma Gandhi’s murderer, Nathuram Godse. Tracing the nationalist’s life over three decades, with the backdrop of India’s fight for independence scoring the drama, Saraf goaded the audience with glee as the unreliable narrator struggling to tell his story, jumping from physical spaces to temporal ones with a rare, deft ease. With a Bollywood film wrapped and in post (Blind), I spoke to Saraf about what’s next, countering divisive nationalism with empathy, and the haunting beauty of Anton Chekhov.
What are some of your earliest or fondest memories of acting?
It would have been at primary school, a tiny place essentially in a Victorian house. Our drama teacher was also our PE teacher and had written a play about drug addiction, except instead of drugs it was ice cream. I wasn’t yet in my final year and I just fucking loved it. I would sit attentively in every rehearsal because I felt like I was part of something. I remember there was one group scene where we were all meant to be clamouring for ice cream and I thought, this is my moment. I stood up and screamed ‘give me my ice cream’ as loud as possible. I can remember the silence in the room after that. If I was to watch the show back, I would probably think what an attention seeking so and so.
Someone’s got to be Stanley Kowalski shouting at the top of their lungs.
Yeah, but you would hate that kid, no one wants to be that kid.
I probably was that kid too to be honest. A weird balance of being shy but wanting to be seen. Recognising it as play but taking it extremely seriously. You’ve studied at Warwick, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and École Philippe Gaulier – are there any that stand out?
Maybe it’s because I’m with you and I’m having a Warwick renaissance, but looking back on it all, what was special was the zeitgeist of the theater crew. There was such a feeling of being the young ones who were going to change everything. A theatrical, artistic revolution of the old guard and this sense that we were there to do something new. It was a very rich time – staging plays in living rooms – and I don’t know what I would have done without it, because I was studying economics. I didn’t attend a single lecture. Warwick was also where my professional career started. I got my first film offer when I was in second year and I realised I could actually do this for job, I can get paid! It was with a director called Fatih Akin about the Armenian genocide and we were shooting in Jordan. It then dawned on me that my scenes with the lead meant that I had to miss three of my final exams. I asked my dad and he said ‘no, you don’t ding down. You start something, you finish it.’ And I said, ‘but papa, this is the thing I want to do. This is my career’. I told my agent that I couldn’t change them and we’d have to turn it down, but somehow he got production to shift the shoot dates to accommodate me so I only had to miss one exam. Still somehow didn’t manage to get a Desmond.
Were there any directors or actors or writers you met there that were particularly formative for you, expanded your craft?
Joe Boylan, who we both know. We also went to École Philippe Gaulier together and he is the coolest dude. Incredible, wonderful, phenomenal. I don’t know how he does it, but I think what a lot of actors – and I – struggle with, knowingly or unknowingly, is experiencing a moment versus it being read on stage or screen. When he’s truthful, the way it manifests itself externally is the perfect size of theatricality. I’ve never seen anything like it, it’s never too big.
I loved you in The Father and the Assassin, what a wonderful production that was. What drew you to this story, and could you talk a little about what it was like working with Anupama Chandrasekhar (writer) and Indhu Rubasingham (director)?
Fantastic, they were so collaborative. What I get a bit tired with now is when I’m made to feel like a highly skilled waiter at a Michelin star restaurant, where you go, ‘I know exactly how to deliver the vision that you have finely crafted, here you go ma’am, here’s exactly what you wanted’. I’m good at that because I’ve been doing it for a little while now. But what’s amazing is when a director and a writer are interested in an actor’s opinion and thoughts for the overall story and production. Because an actor is embodying the narrative. They are feeling it physically coursing through their veins. A good actor should know physically when something is missing or when it’s emotionally jarring. A writer may go, this happens and this happens, but only in acting can you say – I can’t go from there to there because the human heart and human brain aren’t able to. It’s fake. They were very receptive to that.
A multi-layered, often contradictory identity seemed to be the way into the character for you, and by extension the audience, is that how you approached creating Nathuram Godse?
I basically wanted the play to almost side with him more and therefore leave the audience in a worse moral quandary. We live in a world of divisiveness and it’s far too easy to go this is a bad person and this is a good person. The only thing that will bridge that divide is empathy. When we truly empathise with someone, put ourselves in their shoes, it is difficult to hate them anymore. That’s what I wanted the show to do. But, we can’t make this a pro-Godse play because then you’ll go too far. It’s all about balance. Weirdly, we had people coming up who were Godse-ites, saying ‘thank you so much for telling this story’. And I was like, ‘no, you know this is an anti-Godse story? It’s a prophetic warning’.
On that point – I was struck by how sweeping yet accessible its retelling of history was, but also how relevant it was to our present day when it came to division, rhetoric and who controls narrative – do you feel it’s a particularly prescient story? India, Pakistan and the world continue to be shaped by the fundamental event of Partition…
That’s why I’ve got to tip my hat to the National. For Anupama it was an outcry of rage for what’s going on in India right now. But what’s currently going on there is reflective of what’s going on in the wider world, this endemic of nationalism and divisiveness. The play used the lens of the man who killed Gandhi in the independent struggle for India to interrogate those issues. We were doing the play when the war between Ukraine and Russia broke out. The last speech literally spoke to that, it was a response.
Did you enjoy that directness?
That was the thing I loved.
I could see that you were having a lot of fun, the audience could access that.
That’s my main philosophy when it comes to acting. It’s completely lifted from Philippe Gaulier. His whole school of thought is le jeu, which is ‘the play’. If you are not having fun, if there is no pleasure in what you are doing, then why are you making everyone else suffer? Where did this idea come from, that art has to be endurance and suffering? It can be a tragic story, but in that is relish, is pleasure.
You’ve done some high-level Shakespeare work and some Chekhov too recently. Do you find it a satisfying challenge working on plays and characters that have been performed thousands of times, trying to make it your own? I suppose it’s helped when you’re breathing new life into texts through cross-casting, like in Hamlet? And, maybe these classic texts are ripe for new perspectives and experimentation by virtue of them being so established and recognised…
There are some actors who absolutely love the whole historical academia of these great parts and plays, which I frankly find paralysing. As it just comes with this entire weight. You don’t need that baggage of pedigree. What I love about those stories is that they contain characters and ideas and thoughts that I get to embody that are universal, in a vertical sense. They are life and death; they are ideas of what it means to be alive. I think that’s the greatest gift for an actor, to be able to be express a figment of human philosophy. What I always hope for is stumbling across new, undiscovered ground about what it means to be human. Maybe if I feel it or embody it, someone else in the audience will see it and go, ‘oh wow, that’s what I feel’.
Did you enjoy the role of Tuzenbach in Three Sisters? I’ve played him before and struggled with being a bit of a wet blanket.
It was one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. He gets that final moment with Irina towards the end and I think it’s the most beautiful scene I’ve had the pleasure to play. I was reading the Myth of Sisyphus by Camus at the time, and it informed the playing of that scene and really the entire part. He’s someone whose entire life goal is triangulated around one person and their love. And in that final scene, he implores her to say she loves him, even if she doesn’t mean it. Tuzenbach just needs that one bit of hope that will allow him to carry on living and she doesn’t give it to him. He knows in that moment that he cannot carry on. Then he has an amazing monologue about the trees, it’s honestly haunting. I think Chekhov knows what it means to face suicide. Camus also writes so well about the moment of absurdity when your human irrelevance becomes prescient. The idea that you’re alive is absurd. It’s not a painful feeling, rather, you start to see things within their own right, especially nature, the trees. Because when you are the hero of your own narrative, when you are the centre of your life, then you view everything else in respect to that. In the absurd mode a tree can become unbearably beautiful. Then before he leaves the stage he has that amazing final line, asking her to prepare some coffee, even though he’s not going to come back.
You’ve done a fair bit of TV already – Bodyguard, A Suitable Boy – but Shantaram, from what I’ve read, seemed like an intense shoot. What was it like filming something at that scale during the pandemic in Bangkok and Melbourne?
It was amazing, a real learning curve. It was also huge, they built a 50 acre slum in Bangkok and turned that into central Bombay. Our set was a mini city. It was illuminating because we were doing it deep in the pandemic – you are stuck with your castmates day in day out. They’re your fellow inmates, you become a kind of family. Now I have this entire group of 15 people that I’ll know for the rest of my life.
In your Variety interview you said that “I’m really getting a lot of satisfaction from taking a more authorship role in the work that I do. I very much want to change the landscape of storytelling — in the U.K. and the world.” What stories would you like to tell?
I want to use whatever momentum that I’ve managed to gather and transfer that energy into what life and a career in the arts can be. I want to push it and turn it into something that makes a difference in the world. Especially through narrative, because that’s my medium. I want to tell stories that make someone question the choices that they make in day-to-day life, what they assume to be normal. Perhaps nudge people towards a moment of absurdity.
Photography Kirk Truman
Grooming Charlotte Kraftman
Styling Benedict Browne