Fatherland – Royal Exchange

fatherland

Fatherland is a piece of verbatim theatre which explores the nature of fatherhood. It is the creation of playwright Simon Stephens, director Scott Graham and composer Karl Hyde who have gone back to their home towns to interview men about their experiences as sons and fathers. Three actors represent them on stage and introduce us to the interviewees and their stories.

Even before the performance ends, I decide to return and see it a second time.

Why? Well – firstly, because it is beautiful. The staging is simply stunning. Sometimes we see just our three creators with a single interviewee on the rust-coloured rotating metal platform. Sometimes others appear, striding across the platform or walking through ‘doorways’ that are lifted out from the floor. And sometimes the entire cast of thirteen men converges on that central space and the whole place pulsates with movement and music. The choreography conveys power, vulnerability, tenderness, elation and despair and is accompanied by a musical score which ranges from macho, football-ground chanting to the most haunting of harmonies.

Secondly – it is a very moving collage of reflections on fatherhood. I am put in mind of a recent interview with Jeremy Deller – the inspirational force behind MIF’s opening ceremony – where he objected to the term ‘ordinary people’: “There is no such thing,” he argued, “everyone is extraordinary.” Fatherhood (like motherhood, birth and death) is a very ‘ordinary’ experience which is, nevertheless, extraordinary for every person who experiences it. And in Fatherland we see extraordinary ordinary men doing a remarkable thing – taking off the male mantle of reserve and repressed emotion and revealing the pride, the joy, the fear, the anxiety and the complex, visceral love involved in fathering and being fathered. No matter that all this doesn’t particularly go anywhere or tell us anything startlingly novel: this is verbatim theatre, and each vignette is a tiny, intimate piece of someone’s life. It is difficult not to be moved by the honesty, poignancy, and intensity of the disclosures.

Finally – it is brave. Or is it self-indulgent? I’m not sure the first time round, and the need to resolve my feelings about this is a significant reason for my return trip.

At some point in the process of researching and interviewing for this project, Stephens, Graham and Hyde decided to install their own journey in the making of Fatherland as the central theme of the production itself. This is partly an expression of their own reservations about the ethics of verbatim theatre, of which Stephens has said elsewhere that he is ‘deeply suspicious’. These reservations are personified in the character of Luke, whom we first meet as a potential interviewee but who goes on to punctuate the performance with challenges to the three men about their motives and integrity. It feels like Luke is a fictional creation representing the collective conscience of Stephens and co. rather than an actual interviewee, though this is not stated.

Luke’s challenges are penetrating: “Isn’t editing the same as lying? How much money will you make from these stories? Are you just going to do this and leave? Do you know what ‘Fatherland’ represents to the people I work with?” The only response to these questions is an uneasy silence and no defence is offered. Creating this character and his dissonant voice feels like a rather awkward apology for the project (‘We really wanted to make this show, but realise that, ethically, it’s a bit dodgy’.) The audience is left to make up its own mind as to whether raising these issues but not addressing them is good enough. For me, even second time around, it feels uncomfortably like Stephens, Graham and Hyde are having their cake and eating it.

One of Luke’s challenges is, however, taken up. “What about you?” he asks them, insisting that the three creators leave the safety of their clip boards and turn the spotlight on their own experience as fathers and sons. ‘Stephens’ initially objects – “This isn’t about us.” But, of course, it is – and has to be. It’s where the project started and where it ends – with some remarkably raw scenes of self-revelation – each, again, beautifully staged. ‘Hyde’ is borne aloft by the cast as he recalls how an early childhood memory is echoed in his later life when he was drinking. ‘Stephens’ recalls his alcoholic father’s last-ever Christmas present to him – a football shirt, and as powerful a metaphor for a father’s blessing as one could imagine – and wonders if his dad ever felt betrayed by the son’s change of team allegiance.

In the opening scene of Fatherland, we are told that the project was partly inspired by a Dali painting – Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Metres Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln. In this theatrical parallel, all the individual stories will, they hope, contribute to an overall portrait of fatherhood. And yet, that overall picture – of the emotional ambivalences of fatherhood and the male struggle to communicate them to their children – is a pretty familiar one, and actually the least interesting aspect of this production. Where Fatherland comes into its own is in showing us how that ‘ordinary’ struggle plays out in extraordinary ways through a myriad of small interactions between actual fathers and sons, and the lasting impact these have on all concerned.

Not self-indulgent, I decide. Honest and brave.

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