“I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves…”
In this line from ‘The Father’, the central character, Andre, displays a singular moment of self-awareness and insight into his dementia. Its poetic poignancy is all the more heart-breaking by contrast with the spare, prosaic dialogue that characterises the rest of this play.
‘The Father’ traces the progression of Andre’s illness and his relationship with his daughter, Anne. Playwright Florian Zeller – himself not yet 40 – shows extraordinary understanding of this tragic condition. The impact on both victim and carer is depicted particularly vividly through a focus on a familiar behavioural trait associated with dementia sufferers – blaming others. Blaming others for stealing, for making changes without consultation, for lying, for neglect – indeed for everything that feels, well, just wrong. And as we watch Anne sacrificing her time, her relationship and her own emotional health to caring for Andre, it is painful to witness the accusations that fly her way.
But what is remarkable about this play is not so much its content, but its form. The opening – a heated exchange between Andre and Anne – feels like a standard, naturalistic, domestic scene. This is, however, soon turned upside down. When we next see ‘Anne’, she is played by a different actor. Andre doesn’t recognise her – and neither do we. He is confused – as are we. And so begins a seriously unsettling portrayal of dementia from the inside. Reality is fractured: we, like Andre, are unsure who is who and whether they are who they say they are, and if/how what they say relates to what they’ve said before. Lineality is undermined – earlier scenes get repeated after what we have assumed are later scenes, often with different actors. It is deliberately confusing. We are Andre. And it is a deeply disturbing experience.
This device is reinforced by some inspired design and direction (by Patrick Connellan and Kevin Shaw respectively) The set is totally naturalistic – a living/dining room. This only ever changes in small-ish details – a table/sideboard/chair may be shifted. However, it becomes apparent that, while the setting appears to stay roughly the same, the location actually changes at various times from Andre’s flat to Anne’s. Yet there is nothing consistent about these changes: when the dialogue suggests we are in Anne’s flat, the configuration of furniture may be different from a previous (or subsequent) ‘Anne’s flat’ scene. We, like Andre, are continually unsure – where are we?
Especially powerful are the scene changes themselves. These involve Andre standing in the centre front of the stage while, in semi-darkness, shadowy figures bustle around, moving items and furniture from back to front to side and back behind a screen that is briefly transparent and then assumes a solid form again. It feels like the world is spinning around him and is in a constant state of transmutation – leaving him shaken and disoriented.
Constant throughout all of these shifts in time and space, a once-beautiful grand piano lies, limbless and shattered, on a low platform in front of the stage. Its inner workings are exposed and its keys and hammers are strewn across the floor. There is no mention of this through the performance: it just lies there, stranded and hopeless – a painful metaphor for the human disintegration we are witnessing on the stage behind.
This is a clever and subtle production of an extraordinary play. And the cast – especially Kenneth Alan Taylor and Kerry Peers, as father and (primary) daughter – are entirely convincing, giving performances that convey both the humour and the pain of this all-too-common situation. It is impossible not to be moved. At the end of the curtain call, Kenneth Alan Taylor takes a moment to pay tribute to the courage of Kevin Shaw, as the Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Coliseum, for agreeing to stage the play. Amen to that.