The Father - Descending Into the Depths of Dementia
“The world as it stands is no narrow illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of the night; we wake up to it, forever and ever; and we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it.” - Henry James.
You’re getting a little absent-minded and having difficulty recalling where you put your car keys - but what would happen if you began to question your own identity, or started losing your mind? What does it really mean to ”lose it” and how does that effect your family? Florian Zeller's dazzling drama The Father explores the effects of a deeply unsettling illness that affects 62,000 Kiwis, a number expected to grow to 102,000 by 2030. As the charming, but sadly disintegrating protagonist comments, "There are strange things going on around here. Haven't you noticed?"
Born in 1979, Zeller wrote his first novel (Neiges Artificielles/Artificial Snow) when he was only twenty-two. His third novel (La Fascination du Pire/Fascination of Evil) explored the cultural relationship between Islam and the West. It was selected for the Prix Goncourt and won the prestigious Prix Interallié in 2004, creating considerable controversy and making Zeller a household name in France. The Father was written in 2012, won the Molière Award for Best Play in 2014, and garnered widespread acclaim in the UK when it premiered at Bath's Theatre Royal in 2014. It transferred to Wyndham's Theatre in London, where it ran for two months, before returning to the Duke of York’s Theatre in 2016. One of the most acclaimed new plays of the last decade, it has become an international hit, premiering on Broadway in a limited engagement in 2016 and in Australia the following year, and winning theatrical awards and nominations in Paris, London, and New York. With three productions recently running concurrently in the West End (The Father, The Mother, and The Truth), it is hard to disagree with The Guardian giving the London production a rare five-star review, naming it Best Play of the Year, and calling Zeller "the most exciting new theatre writer of our time."
The same theme of encroaching senescence has been explored in two recent films - Still Alice (2014), in which linguistics professor Julianne Moore and her family find their bonds tested when she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's Disease, and Floride (2015), which is loosely based on Ziller's play.The plot concerns an elderly man with dementia and the efforts of his daughter to balance her responsibility to care for him with her own life and relationships. André, once an engineer, now lives with Anne and her husband Antoine. Or was he perhaps a tap dancer, magician, or circus performer, whose daughter now lives in London with her new lover, Pierre? The Father forces us to witness events from André's confused and troubled perspective, as he struggles to make sense of a progressively befuddling world. Is Pierre a monster who physically abuses André? Why does André’s other daughter, Elise, never come to visit? Is Anne living in London or Paris? Can we even be sure we are witnessing events in André's apartment?
By turns searingly honest, profoundly moving, and darkly comic, the play is "a bizarre, psychological thriller where we are constantly challenged to decide whose reality prevails," according to veteran director Ross Jolly. "In the landscape of fake news and distorted, alternative facts what is the real "reality" anyway? Maybe it's just a different point of view. Am I going a bit mad, or is it you?” The dislocated plot proceeds from an ingenious premise, presenting the world from a warped perspective that creates an environment as relative and unfixed as a vintage Theatre of the Absurd production. Like one of the lost characters that abound in the plays of Eugene Ionesco, Luigi Pirandello, and Edward Albee, André finds himself in the company of people he is assured he knows intimately, but fails to recognize. The same is true of the space in which he resides (which is rarely what he assumes it to be), but time is the most slippery proposition of all. For André, his watch is a cherished anchor and he insists he has always owned two - one for his wrist, and one in his head. But he repeatedly misplaces it and must try to keep time by relying on his mental timepiece, which constantly needs resetting and rewinding.
This is a short and slippery piece of theatre, full of Pinteresque guile, with strange interlopers constantly interrupting André's privacy. Scenes are abbreviated and sections of dialogue repeated. The sequence of events frequently confounds our expectations, especially in the way it philosophically plays with time and forces us to question the factual basis of reality. There are obvious echoes of King Lear, both in the father-daughter relationship and the impending sense of doomed insanity. As Shakespeare demonstrated, madness is not only ugly, but also inherently tragic, full of rage, pathos, and cruelty. Unlike Lear, however, André never awakens to a broader, more compassionate awareness of suffering humanity. “I’m losing all my things,” André complains, having once again mislaid his watch. “If this goes on much longer, I’ll be naked, stark naked.” The lines acquire the icy echo of universal prophecy, in one unguarded moment revealing the cruelty of love, the limits of patience, and the way child-parent relationships become inverted as mental decrepitude creeps up on all of us. Zeller succeeds in perhaps the hardest of theatrical tasks - creating an unsympathetic character, yet one whose forlorn condition nonetheless evokes an aching sense of empathy.
André is like an embattled medieval fortress under siege, barricaded by a series of psychological corbels and machicolations. He is first seen dressed in shades of brown and khaki, looking puzzled and lost, holding down the fort of his identity in defensive obduracy. His body language says 'enter at your own risk.' Before we know it, however, we have walked straight inside his head and it is a lonely, frightening, embattled location. André’s ego is too large and impregnable to be deflated by the classic symptoms of dementia - the delusion and paranoia that derives from imagining that lost and cherished possessions have been stolen, or that other people are playing cruel tricks on you when they insist you cannot see what is in front of your eyes. Although André may never have been particularly likeable, he could clearly be seductive and we glimpse the old charm when he first meets Laura, who has been hired to take care of him. “Your face is familiar,” he purrs, before telling her (to his daughter’s astonishment) that he used to be a tap dancer, the art of which he proceeds to demonstrate in an antic, tension-defusing moment that makes Laura laugh. Then, with a calculated precision that borders on the sadistic, André acidly observes that Laura has an “unbearable habit of laughing inanely.” The temperature in the theater plunges. We shiver again when André casually compares Anne with his other daughter, his favourite (and probably dead). “If you only knew him,” Anne says of the man her father used to be. “He had so much authority.”
Jolly’s controlled production, which repeatedly skips beats like a needle sticking on vinyl, deftly interweaves elements of black comedy into a bleak tapestry that remains farcical even as the tragedy unfolds. The Father has been seamlessly translated by the versatile and prolific British writer Christopher Hampton, best known for his play and the film version of Dangerous Liaisons (1988). Like Zeller, Hampton enjoyed his first theatrical hit with Savages when he was still very young and has written a number of Oscar-nominated screenplay adaptations, including Ian McEwan's novel Atonement. As expected from an old pro, his dialogue is pitch perfect and the performances all do it justice. Gavin Rutherford does his best to disguise Pierre’s simmering resentment, while Danielle Mason never attempts to make Anne maudlin, offering instead a troubled grace that encourages us to appreciate fully the frustration of her predicament. But most memorable of all is Mercy Peaks' Jeffrey Thomas whose André is by turns ferocious, playful, infuriating, and increasingly broken. When he finally cries out “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves,” our hearts crack open for him - and for our own potential future.
John Hodgkins' shifting set design and Marcus McShane's burnt sienna and cobalt lighting constantly change in ways that sometimes make us wonder if our eyes are playing tricks on us. Between scenes, we are plunged into an electrified darkness accompanied by fractured and syncopated snatches of Eric Satie. Though André’s world may no longer correspond to the one which those around him inhabit, we participate in the unremitting confusion of its reality. Zeller has described the theatrical experience as being "involved in an adventure that's bigger than yourself. It's an art that has no meaning unless it is shared. What is important is that the audience has the impression that I'm speaking from their experience … For me, theatre is above all the place for questions and not for answers. For doubt, more than certainty and conclusion."
"He makes us take this scary ride," commented Jolly in a recent interview for The Dominion Post. "It's a play of shifting sympathies … [that] relates to everyone. If you're young, its your grandparents. If you're in mid life, it's about your parents, and if you're getting to my age, it's the worry of might happen to yourself. It's the idea of being sound in limb, but your mind has deteriorated. All you are is memory and you've lost your identity. This is our biggest fear now, rather than a hot, sharp exit from the mortal coil." Simultaneously both intriguing and unnerving, The Father takes us on a disturbing journey into a mind disturbed by shifting boundaries and uncertain realities. It is a quietly devastating depiction of one man's slow descent into the depths of dementia.
The Father plays at Wellington's Circa Theatre until 11 November.