2 November 2015
There is much to be said about knowing nothing at all about a theatrical production you are about to see, apart from the comforting sight of the name of an actor you respect on the marquee. Expectations are never overblown in such circumstances and one's mind is more readily open to many possibilities. It is not often that, half-way through a production, the effect of the production is to question one's sanity. Not in the “I am mad to keep sitting through this rubbish” sense (that happens with alarming frequency) but in the “what's happening here, I don't, no, can't, work this out – am I losing my mind?” way.
Yet, that is precisely what occurs in James MacDonald's production of Florian Zeller's The Father now having its West End premiere at the Wyndhams Theatre. Zeller is French, so the convolutions, form, characters and situation are entirely his, but the words here come from Christopher Hampton, whose translation is spare, direct and harrowing. It's a heady mix of supreme writing talent and Macdonald's production flays the affecting truth out of every passage.
As my companion whispered at the end, “It's grim”. It is indeed – gloriously so.
In the programme, Zeller states his ambition for the play in these terms:
“The Father attempts to understand, through theatre, the situation of an old man who has lost all his bearings and arrived at that moment where his kingdom dissolves. What drew me to this subject? I don’t exactly know. But one thing I do believe is that theatre can usefully – and immediately – hold a mirror up to its audience, allowing us to recognise and so to understand ourselves a little better. That is why I was keen that on this particular journey we shouldn’t only be spectators, that we too should become lost in this mental labyrinth – so as to experience more completely, from the inside, the tragedy of old age, and that fragility to life which makes all of us equal.”
Rarely has an expressed ambition been so wholly successful as Zeller's is here, where his work is shaped by Hampton and Macdonald into a beautiful symphony of pain. Indeed, the notion of a symphony is almost literal, as the many short scenes are linked by Christopher Shutt's compelling sound design, which seems to comprise classical piano music (at least for the most part) played superbly, except for the odd missed note or unexpected rest. As the play progresses, the number of odd breaks in the music increase, thereby providing an aural analogy for the onset and progression of Alzheimer's, which is the focus of Zeller's play.
Guy Hoare's lighting is also part of the conveyance of meaning. As each scene (or most anyway) begins, there is a spark effect, a small visual representation of a proper connection being made, just before the lights come on. The spark varies in intensity as the narrative progresses and when it is absent, the silence does, indeed, speak volumes.
Miriam Buether's set does its own heavy lifting. Buether establishes the Parisian nature of the flat effortlessly and arranges the room with care. As the scenes flicker from time A to time B, the audience is gently placed in “what happened to all the furniture” mode, wondering if the removal of furnishings and fittings is a metaphor for Alzheimer's. It is, of course, but Buether's real aim is cleverer: the set and its changes represent the confusion of the central character, André, who is in a rut, always asking where things are not asking where he is.
Everything about Macdonald’s production is smart and thought through. Difficult set changes occur in total blackness helping the jarring sense that occurs from scene to scene. The whole effect of the production is to place you firmly into the perception, the quivering, uncertain and ever-changing perception, experienced by André. Which is the cornerstone of Zeller's approach: the scenes and characters play out and are played from André's point of view.
In the early stages of the play, this approach is both confronting and disarming. I found myself consulting the programme to check who was who before catching on to Zeller's conceit (as opposed to thinking I had missed something). Once you click into the right receptive mode, accept you will not understand everything, you are free to marvel at Kenneth Cranham's extraordinary performance as André and gain some understanding of what it is to have your wits challenged by Alzheimer's.
It would be easy to make André a caricature of dementia sufferers, but Cranham does not fall into that trap. His performance is raw, painful to watch at points because of its aching honesty, and brutally realistic. Across the production, he shows André in all his shades, from lucidity to utter blank helplessness. And he masterfully permits those shades to darken and lighten and reverse in seconds, as André slips in and out of the fog which is engulfing him.
Cranham extracts as much humour as is possible from the character, adding, of course, to André's accessibility and humanity. He shows his temper too, his solid anger at what is happening to him, as well as startling moments of self-realisation which are profoundly affecting. A sequence where André notes that he is like a tree that has lost all of his leaves is utterly heart-breaking. The final scene is as harrowing as anything in King Lear.
This is a truly marvellous turn from Cranham, easily one of the great performances of the year and the decade.
The rest of the cast are all splendid. Some, if not all, carry the burden of playing a real character (when André is lucid) and a remembered/perceived character (when André is slipping away mentally). Claire Skinner (Anne, André's daughter) is particularly good at this but the entire cast manage the feat with skill. One marvellous scene occurs when Jim Sturgeon’s character menaces, taunts and assaults André: it a very unsettling moment, an instance of memory and emotion combining into expression in André's thoughts, but Sturgeon is terrifically blank in it.
This is a play for our times. Everyone will, one day, be touched by the issues examined here, either as carer, partner of carer, or cared for. Cranham's superb subtle performance is reason enough to see this play, but actually the play's the thing.
Find out more about The Father