Writer: Florian Zeller
Translation: Christopher Hampton
Director: James Macdonald
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman
André is eighty years old, has two daughters, and lives in his own flat in Paris. Or does he? An intelligent, elegant and deeply moving play about the reality of living with dementia, Florian Zeller’s The Father allows the audience to stand on the same shifting sands as the protagonist as the world around him changes into one he does not recognise.
Few would imagine that a play about a man with Alzheimer’s would be funny and entertaining, but The Father is. Not always, and not only, but like the experience of sufferers there are moments of light and joy. It comes as no surprise that Zeller has gained such accolades for The Father, including the 2014 Molière Award for best play.
The stylised structure, coupled with the naturalism of the scenes, allows a certain amount of distance with which to view the piece as a whole rather than being overwhelmed with the sadness that underpins it. Ingenious devices such as the replacement of actors at key points, repetitions of scenes in altered contexts and the slow, unexpected removal of furniture from the stage mean that the audience, like André, have to work to make sense of the narrative. Then ten minutes later find that the few certainties they had are taken away. The scenes are broken, sharply, by a blinding frame of light, accompanied by repetitious musical sequences that often sound like a stuck record. In this clever sound design, Christopher Shutt appears to have included the sound of an MRI machine, which simultaneous jars and anchors the piece in the present.
Kenneth Cranham has beautifully crafted his André – a man who is alternately cheerful, charming or cantankerous, yet always remains sympathetic. Amid claims to be a former tap dancer and an on-going quest to find his watch there is much humour, and Zeller has carefully ensured the laughter is with, and not at, his hero. If André’s battle to retain his authority is reminiscent of Lear, so too is his complex relationship with his long-suffering daughter. In the role that many of us dread, Anne must attempt to balance her father’s needs with having a life of her own that is not being a full-time carer. Amanda Drew gives an outstanding and nuanced performance as Anne, who can only watch helplessly as the parent-child roles are gradually reversed. From Andre’s moments of fierce lucidity to his frequent criticisms, seemingly taking her for granted while idolising her sister, Anne can see the bigger picture that eludes her father and is often on the edge of tears for reasons that André, and the audience, do not fully understand.
As well as the complex and heart-wrenching main story, The Father also raises the spectre of elder abuse. It is an element that is evocative, and left unresolved in a way that is unsettling. Has Andre been assaulted? Which of the men he experienced doing so is guilty – and did it happen at all? Who is best to care for our parents, grandparents, our spouses, and how do you ever make the “right” choice?
A flawless production, and a theatrical experience that is simultaneously beautiful, terrifying and thought-provoking, The Father is a play that should not be missed. Achingly poignant, it would take a heart of stone to experience the final scene unaffected, or with dry cheeks.
Until 16April 2016, then touring | Image:Mark Douet