A young man, straining against the injustice of imperialism, turns to violence. Whipped up by the rhetoric of elders, he is prepared to kill – and to die – for his country's freedom. Is he brainwashed, or is this his calling?

It's the classic 'one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist' situation – naturally resonant in the current climate. But although Tanika Gupta's new play, set in pre-partition India, effectively turns the issue around and around before us, she achieves balance, not spin.

There is a personal connection here: the young man is Dinesh Gupta, a real-life martyr who stormed the Writers' Building in Calcutta in 1930 and shot dead the British government's Inspector-General of Prisons. He's her great-uncle, and yet Lions and Tigers neither wholly condemns nor celebrates his actions. Instead, circumstances and politics are laid out – including many grim truths about the British government's oppression of the Indian populace and torture of dissenters – and we're invited to walk in the shoes of a 19 year-old who desperately believed in freedom at any cost. The script uses his real letters sent from prison, as well as those by incarcerated politicians including Gandhi and Nehru.

Dinesh is a resolute yet upbeat, almost puppyish figure in Shubham Saraf's appealing portrayal, with progressive views on the emancipation of women too. We see domestic scenes of family life as well as how he is 'radicalised' – an older female freedom fighter recounts the horrors inflicted on prisoners by the British on the Andaman Islands, a little-known, shameful chapter of colonial history. How best to respond to such oppression is vibrantly debated however, with the other side of the argument given to a younger woman: Dinesh's sister-in-law Kamala fiercely articulates the need to break with the cycle of violence, revolution without bloodshed.

The play also shows how similar debates took place on the national stage: we see the opposing pulls even within the Indian National Congress party, with Gandhi instigating mass non-violent civil disobedience, while Subhash Chandra Bose builds an army of young Bengalis ready to commit acts of terrorism. While we may sympathise with revolutionaries like Dinesh, the argument is surely always won by Gandhi's articulate avowals of non-violence – although there's balance even here, with Esh Alladi effectively suggesting that this charismatic figure could also be a maddening man.

At times, especially in early scenes, it can feel like there's just too much stilted politician contextualising chat; Gupta doesn't always manage exposition well, although Pooja Ghai's direction keeps things moving. There's an awful lot of – fascinating, important – history to get through, but it often means ideas and debate take precedence over character development or emotional engagement. It's also a broad canvas of a play, and never feels like it has much relation to this candle-lit indoor setting; I'd much rather have heard Lions and Tigers roar in the Globe open air auditorium.

But Arun Ghosh's music – heavy on percussion and squiggling clarinet – works beautifully to underscore the action. And there are fine performances: Shalini Peiris imbues Kamala with clear-eyed intelligence and real warmth, and as British officers, Jonathan Keeble is chilling and thuggishly brutish, while Adam Best movingly endows his prison guard with real compassion. It's one more example of how Gupta's play is constantly revealing both our capacity for cruelty and humanity.

Lions and Tigers is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 16 September.