Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Father

John Bell

Photography by Christine Messinesi and Philip Erbacher

The Father by Florian Zeller, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton.  Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, August 24 – October 21, 2017.

Director – Damien Ryan; Designer – Alicia Clements; Lighting Designer – Rachel Burke; Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Francis

Cast:  André – John Bell; Anne – Anita Hegh; Laura – Faustina Agolley; Pierre – Marco Chiappi; Man – Glenn Hazeldine; Woman – Natasha Herbert

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 25

The concept behind this play is essentially simple.  Imagine what it will be like when you, if you are unlucky, reach a late stage of dementia where memory becomes completely unreliable but your feelings in reaction to others – who are by now caring for you full-time – are just as strong as ever, even though you are misinterpreting reality.  It’s even worse when you realise that you don’t actually understand things at all.

Then, at least in The Father, you end up in tears, crying for your mother to take you home.

Of course, especially for John Bell playing Anne’s father André, the short scenes are not so simple.  As he has said “I find this text particularly tricky to learn – and I think I speak for the other actors as well – because it’s very fractured and you need to make your own links between phrases.  It’s just short grabs of text, which are hard to learn.  It’s easy to learn a slab of Shakespeare, for instance, or Chekhov.  They write these long passages that have an internal logic, that might even rhyme.”

In fact all the other actors, and especially Anita Gegh as André’s only surviving daughter needing to get on with her own life, and of course John Bell himself, succeeded admirably with the disjointed language.  The fascinating thing about watching the play is that we found ourselves caught up in this mental state, and like André found it hard to know what the true story really was.

On the way to the theatre, I saw in Martin Place that the old traditional pavement message, Eternity, has now been changed to the word Empathy.  That’s what this play is really about.  There is no eternity – all our lives will end – but at least in our kind of society there is provision for empathy…well, there was for André in the full-care nursing home Anne had to admit him to.  The play ends where the author probably began constructing André’s mental world, with a professionally empathetic nurse cradling the crying old man in her arms.

In the Conversation with the Playwright, Florian Zeller, printed in the program (translated from the French by Marie Laubie and Carl Nilsson-Polias), the question is raised, saying “Some have compared the role of André in The Father to King Lear.  Is it, in the end, a tragic role in that sense?”

Zeller replies “It’s always perilous trying to sum things up in one word.  Still, I would say, ‘Yes, I think this is a tragic role’.  The play seems to me to be animated by a destination, its end, which is a tragic destination.” 

Though I recognise the awfulness of dementia, I have also seen the worth of an empathetic caring staff who managed my mother through some 5 years of demanding behaviour (going back to her working life when she ran the office and now expected to run the dementia unit), paranoia like André’s belief that his watch was stolen because he couldn’t find it, incomprehensible but highly imaginative flights of fantasy, and a complete inability to understand what was on the television screen.

At a week short of 93, my mother died peacefully, thanks to carers who were never punitive, nor full of sympathy, but had what I would call a practical empathy.  This is what I saw in the final scene of The Father – not a tragic but a positive end in the acceptance of reality.

And that makes this play worthwhile being produced by the Sydney Theatre Company, justifies the effort and the quality of the actors’ and creatives’ work, and certainly says you should take time out to see it – and help prepare for that time in your life.

Illustration by Nicholas Harding:
John Bell in rehearsal