Writer Florian Zeller has expressed his keenness on this piece – on this journey to not simply be voyeuristic but for the audience to become lost in a mental labyrinth. He doesn’t want us to witness the effects of Alzheimer’s but rather to feel them; to feel the confusion and the devastating realisation and loss of what is slipping away.
The Father starts off just like so many plays. There’s a chronological order and there’s a sense of how things ‘normally’ are in our brains. We know what’s going on around us in our everyday lives don’t we? We know who our friends and families are? Even strangers in the street can leave a lasting impression. The play lends itself an unnatural quality as events begin to unravel and they certainly aren’t as they initially seemed.
The set, crafted by Miriam Buether and her team plays much more than a stationary, aesthetic role. A very attractive, grand Parisian apartment is slowly broken down; at once a very clever way of manoeuvring the audience through to a moving and devastating final scene, but also an underlining, symbolic indication of the degradation of the human mind.
Claire Skinner’s (probably most recognised as the mum in the brilliant TV series Outnumbered) Anne is finding it hard to deal with her father Andre’s loss of memory. She shows her frustration not through an evident and conscious display of anger, but through nightmares in which she ends both of their suffering. Skinner is an accomplished actress and handles this role with ease and conviction. Releasing some much needed tension as one of her father’s fragmented memories finally hits her, turns a good performance into a great one. She believes it and we believe it. Her relationship with Kenneth Cranham’s Andre is touching and involving and though the characters overlap and are somewhat ambiguous in the first half, we never forget who she is.
Cranham is completely staggering. He switches so rapidly between different moments in Andre’s decline that it could be hard to keep up. The ease though, in which he flows into each personality, is subtle and it is real. A charming and very independent man one moment, Cranham put me on the edge of my seat with the expectation of seeing him lash out through no fault of his own in another, to being bullied as if he were a defenceless child. The emotions he emits, the care he takes of those around and vice versa is fascinating and deeply moving. The rest of the cast are grand, though Nicholas Gleaves’s Pierre has created a strange character that is almost robotic and disconnected from the rest of the play. Very strange.
There are so many scene and set changes that it simply becomes part of the play, but they lend James Macdonald’s production a stilted and uncomfortable feel that never allows the audience to completely relax. This touch rounds off and aids the theme of The Father. Throughout, I heard big bellowy laughs at moments that I didn’t really think needed to generate such reactions, but that’s life I suppose. If we don’t laugh then we’ll cry right? Florian Zeller’s play and its translation by Christopher Hampton is outstanding and the minimalist of the theatre production makes this, in my opinion, one of the best plays ever created. Speaking of crying, definitely take lots of Kleenex.
The Father is playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 21 November. For more information and tickets, see the Delfont Mackintosh website. Photo by Simon Annand.