Writer: Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton
Director: James Macdonald
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Only 35, Florian Zeller has written a number of novels and plays and has been produced all over Europe. But he is rather less well-known on this side of the channel, something translator Christopher Hampton and co-producers Theatre Royal, Bath and Tricycle Theatre are seeking to address with The Father.
Kenneth Cranham is the eponymous father, André. In his autumn years, he suffers from dementia. But this isn’t a clinical observation of his confusion from the position of omniscient observer. Instead, Zeller takes us on a journey inside André’s head so that we see events from his point of view. And a confusing, disconcerting, immersive and discombobulating experience it is too, attacking all our senses and challenging us to understand the capricious narrative flow.
We enter the auditorium to see a cramped space on stage that already feels claustrophobic and limiting. It portrays a room in André’s flat (or does it? – the first, but by no means last, time that we ask ourselves this question) crammed with furniture. The play’s narrative is structured as a set of vignettes separated by profound darkness (resonant with his understanding, perhaps) and loud jarring piano music – which skips, sometimes reverses and often repeats. The vignettes jump around chronologically and, maybe, geographically and sometimes (almost) repeat reflecting André’s confused mental processes. And in each vignette, the set degrades in time with André’s mental state. Superb design from Miriam Buether.
The other characters are rather more fluid as we see them through the eyes of André. Sometimes we fail to recognise his daughter, Anne or her husband – if she has one. His new carer seems to shapeshift too. Some characters enter, interact with André insisting they know him but giving contradictory information only to disappear as if never there. As the evening moves on, André descends further into confusion – as do we. Many of our questions go without explicit answers as we try to navigate André’s convoluted journey.
Writing and design of this calibre demands first-rate direction and performances too. And James Macdonald and the company rise to the challenge.
Kenneth Cranham’s central performance is a tour de force. He manages to sound so terribly reasonable even as we can see that he is struggling with reality. His sense of bafflement as ‘his’ flat transforms is heart-rending even as his mind continues to wander.
The supporting cast – Amanda Drew as his daughter, Anne (mostly); Daniel Flynn as Anne’s other half, Pierre; Jade Williams as his carer; and Brian Doherty and Rebecca Charles as the ghosts who flit through his alternate reality muddying the waters of his diminishing mental powers – are uniformly excellent. All of the play’s vignettes are played, even underplayed, straight adding to the sense of unease. We remain unsure of exactly who is who, what has happened or is planned and what is fantasy, coming out with a sense of the despair felt by André and those around him.
The Father is by no means a comfortable watch. It requires close attention and leaves stubbornly loose ends. But one leaves with an enduring feeling of what it might be like to try to live with this pernicious disease.
Runs until 7 May 2016 | Image:Mark Douet