Writer: Florian Zeller
Translator: Christopher Hampton
Director: James Macdonald
Reviewer: Michael Hootman
On paper Florian Zeller’s play sounds dull, worthy, and perhaps a little depressing: over the course of ninety minutes we see a man slowly lose his mind to dementia. It’s testament to the strength of the writing, and Kenneth Cranham’s truly heroic performance, that The Father is an electrifying piece of theatre. It’s a heartfelt work which unflinchingly looks at the effects of dementia – both on the sufferer and his family – but does so with compassion and humour.
At the play’s start André (Cranham) has got through his last three carers. It appears that his crotchetiness and forgetfulness is getting out of hand. His certainty that the woman who was meant to look after him stole his watch evaporates when he finds it. But this is only one example of the “strange things going on” which are disrupting his life and confusing him. And things get very strange indeed. In a bold move Zeller presents the action from André’s point of view so the audience, like André, has the jarring sense of reality becoming inconsistent, of things gradually ceasing to make sense. A character might appear but played by a different actor, a simple idea but it brilliantly makes us feel the shock of non-recognition.
André’s daughter Anne (Amanda Drew) is clearly a decent woman at the end of her tether. She has to contend not only with her father’s erratic behaviour, his unconscious cruelty – he makes it quite clear that Anne’s sister is the one daughter he loves – but also the strain that having him live with her puts on her marriage. If his daughter finds the situation trying, her husband Pierre (Daniel Flynn) is, understandably, less sympathetic having to put up with the same frustrations but for a man who’s not even a blood relation. No one could blame him for suggesting that André is put in a home. However, there are hints that possibly this antipathy to the situation gives way to physical abuse.
It’s Cranham’s performance which is the living, beating heart of the play. André can move from quiet dignity to the mischievously impish, from anger to tenderness without missing a beat. The sheer emotional range of the part is dazzling. Perhaps surprisingly, considering the expected frailty of the play’s hero, it’s an intensely physical characterisation. His whole body contorts with delight, offence or rage. His mind might be going but he’s still sprightly. When he tells his carer that he uses to be a dancer – his daughter insists he was actually an engineer – it’s his story which is actually the more believable. There a lovely pantomime of mincing condescension as he mimics a nurse trying to get him to take his “little blue pill”. The moment when he lovingly kisses his daughter’s forehead this belligerent old man becomes, somehow, almost beatific.
At the play’s end we see his expression abruptly change to one of naked horror – at exactly what we don’t know – and it’s one of the most chilling, almost unbearable, scenes this reviewer has seen. There’s something almost uncanny is the way that, without dialogue, Cranham can conjure up the purest representation of absolute despair.
Runs until 30 April 2016 | Image:Mark Douet