andre and anne

Kenneth Cranham as André and Amanda Drew as daughter Anne. Pictures. Simon Annand.

The Father

Birmingham Rep

*****

THERE comes an age when you start to accept your own mortality and with it comes the very real fear that on the final stretch of life’s journey your fellow traveller will be that cruellest of companions, Alzheimer’s.

That fear of being left alone in your own unfamiliar mind in a world full of strangers - the world into which Florian Zeller’s 2014 Molière award-winning play takes us.

The Father, translated by Christopher Hampton, is set in Paris, but it could just as easily be Birmingham, or Coventry or . . . anywhere.

But we are not observers, watching a play about dementia, Zeller cleverly involves us, we are thrust into the mind of the elderly André, the fiercely independent and increasingly dependent father of the piece.

The role brought Kenneth Cranham the Olivier award for best actor last month and his performance alone is reason enough to see what is a gripping, disturbing and moving play, he is just superb. At 71 he brings a lifetime of experience into focus in what must be one of the most difficult and finest performances of his career. Funny, moving and magnificent.

Not that he is alone, Amanda Drew as his daughter Anne tugs on the emotions as she tries to cope with a body that belongs to a father who is drifting away from her. No doubt she had the empathy of many a middle aged daughter, or son, in the audience with elderly parents to care for.

At this point perhaps you should stop reading and go to the Rep to see this wonderful piece of theatre for what follows has to be a spoiler.andre

The structure of Zeller’s play is chaotic as we watch scene after scene from the prospective of André. Time is fluid, a decade ago can be yesterday, never or now; people arrive, are real, to André at least, people from the past, or is it the present, people perhaps from imagination, people from . . . who knows where.

Scene after scene we are left confused as to both when and where we are, whether the people are really there, or from another place, another time or there only courtesy of André’s troubled mind.

Scenes are repeated from different perspectives as time and place defy logic. Is André in his own flat, in Anne’s apartment or . . .

Kenneth Cranham's André slowly crumbles, step by painful  step as the life he knew gradually disintegrates

Wherever it is and whoever owns it, it is shared with Anne’s lover Pierre, played with an unsympathetic smile by Daniel Flynn or is it her husband Antoine played by Brian Doherty. And did Pierre or was it Antoine, really slap him and ask when he was going to stop “getting on everyone’s tits”. And why is Anne different. Not the same person at all.

But then again isn’t Anne divorced and living in London? André’s world of contradictions, of scrambled time; and what about his other daughter Elise? The one he loves the most yet who never visits and the one everyone avoids talking about?

We open with André seemingly normal, an 80-year-old retired engineer, a little forgetful perhaps, even a little eccentric, but managing. And that is the deception of dementia, the moments of normality in the wilderness spreading through the mind. The first hint is his missing watch – stolen by the nurse – or maybe just hidden.

Anne tries carers to look after her father thus we have Laura, played by Jade Williams, or is it another nurse played by Rebecca Charles. She has left in tears or is just arriving for an interview and why do things keep disappearing from the flat.

There are elements of King Lear here with the relationship between the once powerful father descending into madness and his daughter. There is a touching moment when Anne, in tears at the strain, is held, comforted and kissed by her father, offering her the protection and love he can no longer give.

The plays is not just about Alzheimer’s, it is about patience, about love and perhaps about grief at a death in stages.

André never asks for sympathy, he can be cantankerous, difficult, infuriating, and still tries to exert an authority he is no longer capable of commanding; scene by scene, backwards and forwards, we feel the descent into the darkness of dementia until at the end André tells us sorrowfully: “I feel like I am losing all my leaves, one by one”, and your heart goes out to him.

Miriam Buether’s set opens as a comfortable Parisian apartment but scene by scene, like André, it slowly loses elements, furniture disappears until all that is left is a stark, white box, clinically brightly lit room.

The short, quick-fire scenes are separated by a blackness inside a white LED frame accompanied by ever more splintered piano music which at times repeats like a scratched record, at times races and always stutters and jumps as if there is a loose connection in the speakers. Like André’s mind, the wiring is failing.

The thoughtful setting reduces the vast Rep stage to just that white box and its illuminated frame, cleverly creating the studio intimacy that makes the play work so well in the hands of director James Macdonald.

This is not an easy watch, although its 90 minutes just fly by, but it shows the power of theatre. There is no message, no solution, no happy ending, not even much of a story. It is funny, sad, moving, beautifully acted and will leave no one who sees it untouched. To 07-05-16

Roger Clarke

03-05-16 

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