Emotionally shattering & frustratingly unsettling: “The Father” reviewed

The Father  - Claire Skinner, Kenneth Cranham - Photo credit Simon AnnandShane O’Hanlon is a consultant geriatrician in Reading, and Honorary Deputy Secretary & Digital Media Editor at the British Geriatrics Society. Here he reviews “The Father”, currently playing at the Wyndham Theatre in the West End.

Deliriogenic. Emotionally shattering. Frustratingly unsettling. These are some of the ways to describe French playwright Florian Zeller’s uncomfortable study of dementia, “The Father”.

For Andre (Kenneth Cranham), life has begun to lose its rhyme and reason. We enter at an uncomfortable moment, where his family are trying to explain why he needs a carer. He certainly seems to lack insight, but our impression of what he was like before his illness is never clear – an all too real feature of dementia where we never get to know the person behind the disease.

In the play’s execution, memories are layered and overlapping, with some scenes repeating dialogue from earlier ones but changing the circumstances or perspective. Characters seem to merge with each other, and locations change but appear to stay the same. It feels like time itself is warped, and we are sometimes left questioning whether we have just revisited an earlier situation or whether it is a case of déja vu (but with Alzheimer’s-tinged imperfections).

There are unsettling undertones: hints of aggression as a result of distress from dementia; physical abuse of a person with dementia; coercion and sexual inappropriateness. We are never certain whether these really take place or not, as a lot of what we witness is viewed through the lens of Andre’s unreliable perception. But this serves to increase the unease – a running theme throughout the play.

Several devices are used to disorientate the audience: scenes are variable in length (some lasting only brief moments), each is interspersed with a dark stage around which glows an iridescent, piercing light, and disconcertingly upbeat music is played in brief bursts but without any flow such that it sounds like a broken record – a metaphor for the speech patterns sometimes seen in later stage dementia? The effect was powerful – the audience is subjected to unpleasantness even between the scenes. It was reminiscent of Noé’s film “Irréversible” in its intensity; a movie that deals with an entirely different subject matter, but also reels the audience in and forces them not just to witness but almost to become complicit in the sometimes terrible narrative.

Throughout the play there was palpable discomfort in the audience, swinging from an initial patronising laugh when the “pleasantly confused” father makes jokes as an excuse for his memory lapses, to an outpouring of tears and anguish by the end. I wasn’t sure whether I should be disappointed that I was not as upset, and reflected on how health professionals are really quite immune to the effects that distress seen in dementia has on non-medics. Several people were clearly startled by the end, an effect potentiated by the atypical format and duration of the play. I kept hoping for an interval, so that there would be some relief, but it never came. The end was not one that ties loose ends up nicely; indeed things seemed to be at their worst point, so the audience never has respite – like many carers.

“The Father” is remarkably well written, with the best mise-en-scène of any play I’ve seen. It raises important issues such as the often underestimated effect dementia can have on families, the startling ease with which people who have dementia can be unintentionally mistreated, and our inability to really see what the world is like for them, with the folly of repeatedly trying to drag people back to our reality. For all these reasons, it is a must-see production.

Rating: *****

Photo credit: Simon Annand

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