Florian Zeller’s The Father marks John Bell’s first performance in a contemporary play in 26 years, but there are some clear parallels to be drawn between Andre, the play’s central character, and Shakespeare’s Lear, a role Bell has played twice.
Whether he fully understands it or not, Andre is reaching the end of his time on this planet, and he’s starting to lose grip on his sense of time and reality. Unlike Lear, he doesn’t have a kingdom to bequeath, but he has his Parisian flat, which he desperately doesn’t want to leave after three decades of living.
But he’s starting to forget things, both big and small, from the location of his watch (he initially believes it’s been stolen) to details about his daughter Anne’s (Anita Hegh) life.
Anne knows Andre’s condition is deteriorating and she needs to make a quick decision as to how they’ll move forward.
The Father has won rave reviews and multiple awards since its premiere in France in 2014. It was translated into English by Christopher Hampton and has now played on both the West End and Broadway, becoming one of the biggest hit plays of the last few years.
It shows us the world through Andre’s eyes as his memory rapidly dissipates. The audience is given a sense of his confusion as the dramatic situation constantly shifts and changes: relationships evolve, sequences repeat themselves, characters are suddenly played by different actors, and Andre’s apartment slowly evolves, with furniture miraculously moving and disappearing during short blackouts between scenes.
Damien Ryan’s direction certainly has clarity as the action subtly shifts and adjusts, and he draws some strong performances from the ensemble. But despite the continuing confusion, there’s little sense of the cumulative effect of what’s unfolded until the play’s final two scenes.
At that point, the production becomes very moving, leaning on Andre’s eventual surrender and breakdown. Bell digs deep, and although his more classical playing style doesn’t always sit entirely comfortably with the warped realism of the earlier parts of the play, his eventual descent into darkness is vivid and powerful.
Anita Hegh is a standout as Andre’s daughter Anne, unable to find a solution to Andre’s problem and finding their parent-child roles unexpectedly reversed. Marco Chiappi also makes a big impact with one of the smaller roles, as Anne’s partner Pierre.
But there’s a lack of unity of playing styles among the performers on stage; although there’s a great connection between Bell and Hegh, it can feel like they’re in different plays.
The audience is supposed to be kept off balance and not expect what’s coming next, but it’s rarely a particularly surprising piece of theatre, and its internal logic is too clear to be genuinely disorientating. The incongruities built into the play are mostly on the surface, rather than a legitimate undermining of Andre’s perceptions and experiences.
Although it features intricately crafted and cleverly structured dialogue, the play never manages to find a totally consistent mode of expression for its central character. In the final scene, Andre says, rather poetically, “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves.” It’s an unexpected metaphor that seems out of step with the cultured, playful, but practical and straight-speaking Andre established until that point. You can feel the writer’s presence a little too obviously in that moment.
The play has won all sorts of plaudits for its apparently unflinching portrayal of the confusion of dementia (although it never mentions the ‘D’ word), but it should be noted that the image it presents is one of a very wealthy family dealing with illness. Although Andre might be confused by his surrounds, they’re always quite beautiful (Alicia Clements’ set is an expertly executed slice of chic Parisian sophistication), and the family can afford to hire a full-time carer and eventually keep Andre in a friendly institution where there’s a kind nurse to cuddle when the sheer terror of his mental health situation sets in.
This isn’t to say that an upper-middle class story about declining mental health isn’t as valuable as any other, but the play is shaped entirely by Andre’s significant wealth. A play about a man in poverty dealing with the same problem would be bleaker and significantly more confronting.
Featured image: John Bell in Sydney Theatre Company’s Production of The Father © Philip Erbacher