Our Fathers looks at the role of the father across different generations, countries and cultures. To explore this topic we’ve used our own identities – Bert (Flemish), Mike (British) and Sofia (Greek), three childless 30-somethings facing possible parenthood – and those of our fathers – Johan, Jeremy and Dimitris. We wanted to understand more about the men who made us, and the absence or distance that had affected our relationships with them.
We hoped the play could mean something to others and transcend theatre-as-therapy. So from the teeming mass of recollections and emotions that make up our personal stories, we’d need to extract something simple, clear and relatable that could make a dramatic story.
Our fathers’ lives seemed more distinct, richer and more tellable than our own. But they could not be our central characters. There was no reason for these utterly different men to be in one place, dealing with a shared problem. More pertinently, we felt we’d be doing them an injustice. Their ‘true’ characters were refracted by time, distance and personal bias.
We felt the fathers could appear truthfully in two ways. Firstly, through the concrete source material that was from and of them (video and photo footage, interviews, diaries), and secondly, by being imagined into the space via performance devices that acknowledged this subjective act. These theatrical ‘masks’ regularly slip or shatter, revealing the children hiding behind them. Thus we’ve felt justified in assigning our dads invented words and actions, which amplify our sense of them and allow them to provoke and question the central protagonists of the play: ‘us’.
And when it came to ‘us’, we had to take liberties, too. By reading social studies and histories of fatherhood, our attitudes changed. We’d increasingly come to see our dads in their contexts, understanding that time, place, culture, education and circumstance can powerfully limit or unlock a man’s potential to be a loving, involved parent. This research guided us towards a more accepting and respectful view of these men, and the forms by which they were able to show their love. However, this new-found wisdom felt far from dramatic! Characters should never understand too much about the issues they’re embroiled in.
And these characters should not only be less knowledgable, they should be actively pursuing a quest, tackling challenges, obstacles and painful discoveries. To achieve this we’ve exaggerated, extrapolated and mischievously tinkered with our calmer, more contradictory histories.
And yet in treating real life this way, you can move further from accuracy and closer to the truth. In early performances of the show, we were attached to the material and lost in it. Afterwards we would sometimes be in tears. We quickly retreated from that danger, which is good and right. But there was something risky in those earlier shows which audiences could feel. Our director recently noted us to rediscover our earlier doubts about the show – the fear that it was a personal experiment which may not connect with others. Even if it’s not therapy, play as if it were.
At the end of the show I speak ‘romantic memories’ up to my dad in the roof of the theatre, after completing a physically-draining sequence that connects and overlaps our bodies. Even after 50 shows, I feel that I’m carrying out a genuine ritual of memorial, offering tribute, and each time the goose-bumps appear. And when Sofia tells Dimitris terrible news and sees him wilt, and Bert challenges Johan’s attitudes to his son’s homosexuality, moments or issues that in reality have since reached a kind of resolution, they are still ‘going through’ something on some level. However technically demanding and joyously playful these scenes now are to perform.
Every evening we challenge, blame, accept, redeem and honour the men who made us. Each in our own way, we sever from and reunite with them. It’s no coincidence that none of the real fathers have been in the audience. I imagine it’ll stay that way. I just don’t think that our truth could handle their truth. And vice versa.
Mike Tweddle is one of the founding members of Babakas. Our Fathers is at Battersea Arts Centre until 14 June. For more information and tickets, visit Babakas’s website.