Florian Zeller’s The Father is a play that tells a common enough family story: an elderly father, Andre (Michael Bulman), needs increasing levels of care and his daughter Anne (Lyn Snowdon) tries to balance his needs with the demands of her life and her relationship with Pierre (Mark Lester). The play lays bare the inversion of child-parent relationships, the potential cruelty of love, how patience often has its limits.
The play constantly and cunningly double-deals.
But the story is seen through Andre’s eyes, he has advancing dementia, and what a diabolical view it is: nothing but treacherous and frightening. In Andre's world, reality slips and the truth slides.
The play constantly and cunningly double-deals; it’s mildly absurdist in style with scenes that are disjointed, repetitious and confusing. It warps time: a running theme throughout is Andre metaphorically misplacing his watch; but also, scenes flick and repeat with different people re-playing characters.
It also muddles with space; for example, is Anne in London or Paris? Are we actually ever in Andre’s flat, as he believes? Gradually, between scenes, wall pictures (all abstracts, two are muted and smudged and the third is reminiscent of brain synapses, all pointing to Andre’s state of mind, perhaps) then other room paraphernalia and finally furniture are removed; the set becomes increasingly depleted, like Andre’s mind and world, which adds to the disorientation.
More confusion: who are these other people (Emmie Spencer, Simon Messingham, Marie Owens) that just keep turning up claiming to be all sorts: daughter, nurse, carer, Anne’s partner, Anne’s ex-husband. More questions: is Pierre really physically abusive, that heartless? And what happened to Elise, Andre’s most beloved, favourite daughter?
Director Mary Allen’s production is well controlled and gently draws out the comedic and farcical elements of this tragedy. The gradual depletion of Strat Mastoris’s thoughtful set is a neat trick and done well.
There are also controlled performances from all the actors (occasionally, body language was a little rigid but opening night nerves, perhaps); and there are no lapses into mawkishness or sentimentality – a danger considering the subject matter - to undermine the telling of the story.
The understated delivery of Pierre’s cruel words and actions ups his menace; and the depiction of Laura’s sweet kindness, albeit layered with her cringe-worthy patronising, is very believably played by Marie Owens, as is the professional and efficient kindness of Emmie Spencer’s nurse.
Lyn Snowdon doesn’t strain to make Anne an overly sympathetic character and this conversely makes her dilemma, the struggle to do the best for everyone including herself, felt more keenly. However, at times, in the playing of Anne, there was an over-exaggeration of facial expressions and body gestures, which was distracting.
Michael Bulman’s portrayal of Andre is sensitively done and with nuance. Here is a man who was probably never ‘easy’: he can be maddening, pig-headed, insensitive and fierce. Yet here also is a man who is charming, playful and funny. Near the end, he cries out, ‘I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves’. And then, well then, it’s hard not to lose a grip on your tear-ducts.