The steel works meets a football stadium meets Hollywood. A ladder is dropped. Shockingly bright lights up. Welcome to Fatherland.
We are unexpectedly dropped into a reconstruction of the creative process that led up to the existence of the production that is being presented to us. Scott Graham, Karl Hyde and Simon Stephens (played by Emun Elliott, Bryan Dick and Ferdy Roberts, respectively) are discussing making a show about fathers, the expectations that may come with this and bouncing around ideas of how it can be done. Being exposed to this almost external element of the show is an interesting means by which to invite an audience into the world of a play. We are looking at both a conception and the unfolding of a realisation simultaneously. What Graham, Hyde and Stephens (from here on in Graham et al.) have delivered is an honest look at how they have incorporated verbatim material into this play-cum-musical and an insight into what they asked of their research participant. Of course, my former student self got terribly excited at the unveiling of the questions included in the questionnaire: everything from your father’s hobbies and relationship with your mother to his take on discipline and your earliest memory of him were covered. Whilst this opening segment isn’t quite what X-Men: First Class is to X-Men, it’s certainly leaning in that direction, which can only be a positive.
Over the course of the evening, we meet many men: all sons and most of them fathers too. The stories we are exposed to cover a wealth of experiences from absent and alcoholic fathers to expressing love without ever saying it and falling asleep in grandad’s arms watching Match of the Day. Watching Graham (played by Neil McCaul) literally soar through the air proclaiming his elation at the sight of his son is incredibly heart warming and moving. It is not often we see a man’s joy at the sight of someone who isn’t a potential love interest so this was both refreshing and special to see. There are many genuinely beautiful moments within these stories but, there is unfortunately clumps of stereotypical fluff surrounding them. Now, before you internally challenge with ‘Well, what do you expect? It’s verbatim’, allow me to finish the thought. I am not disagreeing with the presence of these stories or the truth of them. I am however looking at the bigger picture and what this is portraying to an audience, in light of the narratives of people of colour rarely making it to a stage. The two Black narratives in this story belong to Daniel (played by David Judge), a young man experiencing mental ill health and Craig (played by Tachia Newall), a man born to a teenage mother and an absent father. Both David and Tachia give outstanding performances and deliver the true emotion of their characters stories with honesty and integrity. However, these are the circumstances of Black men that we see all too frequently, whether they are true or fictionalised and in a play that explores fatherhood, this is not the most helpful representation of the Black father and son experience. Similar can be said for the lack of Asian fatherhood within this piece. Whilst the creators of this piece have been incredibly transparent about their research methods and interviews being conducted in their home towns (which of course will have drastically impacted their research sample), a piece of theatre with this title that is exploring what fatherhood is would have benefited from conveying another narrative of fatherhood from a different perspective. Such can also be said for the lack of counterbalance to the Islamaphobic views of one character and, the overall cishet vibe of the piece. However, I guess this is the nature of the beast that goes by the name of verbatim theatre. It is not gifted in the art of balance.
Despite this, Fatherland is a wholly engaging, visually stunning production. Eddie Kay’s choreography is captivating to say the least. The use of steel rectangles and a ladder to create an array of tableaux and to become a canvas for an escapade of rhythmic movement and bodily storytelling. Watching a large group of men move to explore and realise, with questions surrounding masculinity in the air is terribly interesting. The most poignant moment of this piece occurs when we see Mel (played by Nick Holder) up a ladder, surrounded by faceless firemen recounting his dad’s awful death whilst out on the job. The visual story in this moment is so overwhelming that at times, I stopped hearing what was being said because the physical scenario before me insisted that I give it my undivided attention. This is an eerie moment that transports us back to the event and has us hang on its every progression.
The ensemble work is strong throughout the entirety of this piece and we truly feel the energy. This rises considerably when the Chorus of Others join the main cast and deliver powerful song and stage presence. The presence of chorus members singing among audience members propels us even further into the world of Fatherland. Top that off with an incredible soundtrack in true Underworld style and there is no doubt that this play has really moved us to a very new and unfamiliar environment.
One thing that has stuck with me is that there are many many coats in this play. And just as a picture tells a thousand words, a coat can tell many more stories. I left this production not being entirely sure what it was trying to tell me about masculinity as a whole, but that’s okay. It was not Fatherland’s job to give me an overview of masculinity and fatherhood in modern Britain (though the semantics of the title make that a slightly grey area). Its job was to offer the language of fathers to us to devour as we felt fit, whether or not we were able to digest this language is an entirely different matter. Fatherland is the sort of theatre that leaves you with lots of questions and sparks a conversation, an important quality of modern theatre.
Fatherland is playing the Royal Exchange until 22 July.
Photo: Manuel Harlan