The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 3rd May, 2016
Florian Zeller’s hit play comes to Brum in this sharp translation by Christopher Hampton. It begins as a seemingly naturalistic portrayal of forgetful old man Andre (Kenneth Cranham) being visited by his daughter Anne (Amanda Drew). But then, disjoints appear. Contradictions arise. Who is the man who appears? Anne’s husband? Someone else? And that woman? Is she a new nurse? Or Andre’s other daughter? Lines of dialogue repeat and reoccur in different scenes. Meanwhile, subtly, the set is becoming barer – items of furniture, and Andre’s possessions, are disappearing, as his mind submits to encroaching dementia. The transitions add to the sense of confusion, plunging us into blackouts while disrupted music blares. Like Andre, we very soon don’t know who is who and what’s going on.
Of course, it’s only a glimpse into what it might be like to experience Andre’s confusion, terror and grief. As audience, we can piece together what is happening in a way that the ailing Andre cannot. It leads us to a devastating, heart-breaking final scene, powerfully played by Cranham, who is utterly convincing as the good-natured charmer, trying to keep his grip and fearing what is happening to him. A stunning portrayal.
He is supported by a striking cast, who show us the effects of dementia on others and also the sometimes shocking treatment of sufferers. Amanda Drew delivers a monologue about strangling her father, to give them both some sense of peace. It is emotive stuff, to be sure, but there is humour, due to the surviving remnants of Andre’s fading personality.
Director James Macdonald keeps us on our toes as we try to sift through the changing situations and Andre’s deterioration – sometimes the scenes are very short and we are soon plunging into darkness again. Miriam Buether’s design – Andre’s increasingly impersonal surroundings – and Guy Hoare’s cool (in the sense of cold) lighting add to the starkness.
Gripping, moving and, ultimately, bleak, The Father could well be the most powerful piece of theatre to be seen this year.