Left – John Bell and Faustina Agolley. Cover – John Bell. Photos – Philip Erbacher
There have been quite a few plays in recent years dealing either tangentially or primarily with issues of ageing parents’ descent into dementia and death, but none have been quite so devastatingly focused as The Father on the experience of mental decline itself, and the heartbreaking effect it has on sufferer and their families alike.
Florian Zeller’s play details the declining faculties of André, a clever and proud old man living alone in Paris, visited by his concerned daughter who is trying to make him accept a new live-in nurse after a row with his last carer.
…or does he already have a nurse?
…or has André moved in with his daughter and her husband?
…or did his daughter get divorced and this man is her boyfriend?
…but didn’t she say her boyfriend lived in London, and that she was moving there, and might need to put her father in a nursing home?
…or is André already in a nursing home…?
The only constant is that he can never seem to find his watch.
While essentially a fairly straight drama play about encroaching senility, the unique and rather inspired tack taken by Zeller is to use nonlinear storytelling techniques in an attempt to imagine for the audience the confusing, unsettling, even downright surreal experience of memory loss and worsening cognitive impairment. We are presented with a series of intentionally confusing scenes contradicting not only André’s stated remembrances, but which also diegetically contradict each other, making us question the subjective reality of what we are seeing.
At first the changes seem subtle, as though André is merely being argumentative and highly forgetful, but before long we start to share in his confusion. Some scenes pick up where others left off, or repeat with different actors playing the same roles. There is a looping of scenes, with variations that we and André can perceive, but of which the other characters profess their unawareness, or proffer alternative versions of events to what we have just witnessed. Characters will occasionally even disappear from ongoing scenes, only for André to be assured they were never there, or told that things he (and we) just saw never happened, and even the set itself changes between scenes. This addled old man is increasingly unsure of whose apartment he is even in, or who he is living with, treating his stressed and careworn daughter unkindly, while openly pining for her absent sister.
Zeller’s play, translated by Christopher Hampton, is a highly effective use of form and technique to create an increasingly nightmarish scenario which manages to draw the audience into the almost Kafkaesque subjectivity of André’s experience of succumbing to severe dementia, whilst still maintaining a crucial degree of believability and a fierce emotional impact. Although told primarily from André’s perspective, the text does not shy away from showing his daughter Anne’s suffering, trying to take care of her father despite the emotional toll.
Moreover, it does not seek to sentimentalise André as a kindly old man. He can be charming, witty, occasionally sweet, but as often as not is imperious, paranoid, petulant and even cruel. One gets the impression that he would have been a proud, perhaps stern man in his prime, likely a somewhat prickly patriarch. Dementia can render even the sweetest-natured person extremely difficult as they lash out in their confusion, let alone those who already have something of a cantankerous streak.
For those who have been spared or are yet to deal closely with a parent, grandparent or loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s or other forms of senile dementia, this play is likely to be an eye-opener, and one which will hopefully deepen one’s empathy for those suffering its ravages. If you have already gone through or are in the process of dealing with the heartbreaking realities of seeing someone you have known all your life become increasingly confused, argumentative and unable to care for themselves, before inexorably diminishing into an infantilised shell of their former selves… this play may hit home rather hard. While not an unrelentingly grim drama without its humorous or lighter moments, it does not pull its punches either, gradually transitioning from merely unsettling scenes to those which are quite emotionally harrowing.
Directed with finesse by Damien Ryan, the tight ensemble cast are all strong, especially Glenn Hazeldine as a smilingly sinister succession of characters, representing more than any other actor André’s confusion over the identities of the more peripheral people in his life. Anita Hegh plays his daughter Anne with a brittle strength, conveying the emotional authenticity of her suffering with great economy over fractured and contradictory scenes, as she tries to care for her father without emotionally destroying her own life in the process.
Ultimately though, this production’s unquestionable star is John Bell, one of the titans of the Australian stage, now branching out into some intriguing roles since stepping down from running his namesake Shakespeare company. Bell’s performance as André is indeed titanic, bringing all the authority, wit, pathos and wrath we have seen innumerable times in his renditions of Lear, Malvolio, Prospero or Richard the Third, beautifully distilled into a more subtle theatricality befitting the near-naturalism of Zeller’s material. We see just about all the imaginable shades of confused emotion cycling through his performance, from prideful to pathetic, quirky, petty, frightened, loving, and vindictive. Perhaps most impressive are Bell’s moments of great nuance, such as when André attempts to hide the fact that he has clearly forgotten something or doesn’t recognise someone he should, before his frustration and temper get the better of him. Or the merest flicker on his face when pretending to understand and go along with something which he clearly disbelieves or is mystified by, but he is attempting to be agreeable or bide his time in the hopes of figuring things out.
It is a bold performance, with Bell willing to often be highly unsympathetic in the role, thus making the nightmare of this situation seem as palpable for Anne as it is for André. His final moments of complete meltdown are utterly wrenching to behold.
Not for the weak of heart or for those still too emotionally close to the subject matter, The Father is an excellent play which offers keen insights, cemented by a truly astounding, shattering performance from one of our greatest actors.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
by Florian Zeller | translated by Christopher Hampton
Director Damien Ryan
Venue: Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, The Wharf, Pier 4/5 Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay
Dates: 19 August – 21 October 2017
Tickets: $109 – $79
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au
A Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company production