It’s rare in the West End to come across a play so unentertaining and so brilliant at the same time. This is one of the many feats of Florian Zeller’s new play, The Father, the story of an elderly man suffering with Alzheimer’s disease. The play is the latest in a recent profusion of art forms portraying the horrific realities of dementia – the novel Elizabeth is Missing, the film Still Alice, to name but a few – but as an immersive, cathartic and desperately real piece of drama, reminds us of how superlative the potential of theatre can truly be.
Set in a Parisian flat, the play charts the mental descent of 80-year old Andre (Kenneth Cranham) and the emotional struggle of his daughter Anne (Amanda Drew) in coping with him. Despite flashes of occasional lucidity, which make his suffering all the more heart-breaking, we watch as this once-authoritative man slides towards a hopeless state of disorientation. By the end of the play, all sense of identity and self-identity has been eroded: scene by scene, the set empties out from a well-furnished living space to the bare, white-walled room of the care home he now resides in, mirroring his gradual loss of mind.
Indeed, one of the cleverest aspects of Zeller’s writing is the way he conveys the sense of Andre’s dementia rather than simply telling a story about it. The play is presented a disjointed puzzle to reflect his muddled perspective: faces literally blur into one, as different actors emerge to play the same character; scenes flash forward and back in time, some of them replayed twice; key parts of the narrative are withheld from us. The audience might be able to put the pieces together, but we’re granted no more information than Andre: our experience of events becomes the same as his, in a way that enlarges our capacity to empathise.
Zeller describes his desire in the play to communicate ‘the tragedy of old age, and that fragility to life which makes us all equal’. I’d be surprised if Kenneth Cranham’s superb turn as Andre didn’t bring this home to every member of the audience. It is testament to his ability as an actor that, in the space of 90 minutes, he expresses such a strong sense of who Andre was through what he no longer is. The growing pathos of his performance reaches an emotionally shattering peak in the final scene where, comforted by Rebecca’s Charles’ compassionately-played nurse, he trembles in fear and calls out for his mother: ‘the father’ has become a child.
But there is also a very worthy, understated performance here from Amanda Drew as the daughter who suffers in equal measure. She plays Anne with the weariness suggestive of a character losing her own sense of self – ‘the invisible second patient’ – in caring for a vacant father. Suppressing tears behind a façade of reassuring gestures, her characters shares as much of the tragedy. In one of the most beautiful moments of the play, Andre, upon seeing her crying quietly in the care home where she is about to leave him, puts his arm around her and gives her a firm kiss on the forehead – the touching portrait of a daughter who momentarily regains the protector she grieves for.
The reality of dementia doesn’t have to be close to home for the message of the play – the fragility of human beings – to hit home. Indeed, there are several moments within this enormously poignant play that will leave a long-lasting imprint in my mind. Unsettling, haunting and difficult though The Father may be to watch, it’s a play which will wake you up to the raw and surprisingly uncommon power of theatre – so go and experience it for yourself.