As the house lights came up at the end of this one act drama I turned to my wife and asked if an hour and a half had really past. I had completely lost all track of time, so drawn in was I to the world of André, the elderly man at the center of Florian Zeller’s play. Given that the play deals with André’s descent into ever increasing confusion and bewilderment brought on by dementia, my bemusement was totally apt.
We see a dizzying series of scenes from André’s point of view. Everything in front of us is designed to enhance the effect of the central character’s disorientation. The tiny single room set (Miriam Buether) immediately shows the size of André’s remaining world. The blackness that suddenly interrupts the action and shows some sort of passing of time is likewise symbolic. The darkness, and the gradually distorting Bach Partita that accompanies it, are powerful characters in the drama.
Christopher Hampton’s translation is both extremely funny and completely heart-breaking. Hampton and Zeller have conjured moments from the protagonist’s life that may, or may not, be sequential. The visitors to his life may, or may not, be who they say they are. The play’s confusing structure is deliberately misleading. This is not a play that offers any easy solution to the difficulties of trying to care for someone with this most impersonalizing disease. Rather it asks us to try and empathise both with the daughter struggling to cope with the increasing demands of her Father’s condition, and with the man whose behaviour is becoming more and more unpredictable, and with it increasingly infuriating. It is a balance the text manages dazzlingly well.
At the centre of James MacDonald’s production is an Olivier Award-winning performance by Kenneth Cranham, utterly convincing in moments of lucidity and agitation. The impression conjured up by Cranham in the final scene will live with me for a long time; 50 feet away in the centre of the cavernous REP auditorium we could see deep behind his eyes into what remained of his character. It was a remarkable image.
Cranham is supported brilliantly by Amanda Drew, as his principal carer, who clearly loves André and wants to do the right thing for him, but also has a new partner who sees things rather more in black and white.
The Father is not an easy play to watch, but neither is it grueling. The amount of humour in the Zeller / Hampton script allows us to enter a difficult but very human world, brought thrillingly to life by a truly great performance.
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