Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 26 March 2016
With three Olivier Nominations just announced, Florian Zeller‘s modern French masterpiece The Father and its remarkable insight into the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease makes a four-week return to the West End. Translated by Christopher Hampton, himself unrivalled in capturing the nuances of French prose for an English audience, this one-act journey thrusts us into the world of the ageing André, whose mind has succumbed to the ravages of the disease.
Zeller’s genius is not only pitching us into André’s world, but rather making us both spectator of and, remarkably, a participator in that crumbling world too. To a typically intelligent theatre audience, possessed of decent mental faculties, Alzheimer’s Disease and its gradual erosion of memory and reason is a nightmare that we may have observed in people close to us, but may not have considered from the perspective of the sufferer.
Zeller makes that perspective happen – and as his narrative unfolds, so do we find ourselves drawn into André’s whirlpool of confusion. To reveal more would be to spoil, suffice to say that with the final scene and André’s lonely frightened eyes, staring at us as he clings to his carer, we are left with having shared the tiniest glimpse of the desperate fear and uncertainty that Alzheimer’s wreaks upon its victims.
Kenneth Cranham as André is up for one of those Oliviers and his is a tough act to beat. As we witness the confusion he displays to those who care for him and love him, what is at first disquietingly comic, becomes increasingly desperate and tragic. Cranham masters André’s early indignant irascibility and there are snatches both of Shakespeare’s Lear and Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman as he slowly descends into uncomprehending terror.
Opposite Cranham, Amanda Drew steps in to the Duke of York’s production to play his daughter Anne. We witness Drew offering a sensitive performance, struggling with her father’s mental decay and its impact upon her own life. Or do we? And just beneath the surface there’s a hint of a historic family tragedy, underlining the memories that André struggles to retain.
It’s not just Zeller’s words that mark The Father out as an Olivier nominated piece of new writing, it is his understanding of stagecraft too. The play marks an inspirational deployment of technical skill as sound, light and scenery subtly combine to create a world in which nothing is what it seems. Credit to Miriam Buether’s design, Guy Hoare’s lighting and Christopher Shutt’s Olivier nominated sound design
Profoundly disorienting and disturbing, if you can bear it The Father makes for essential, unmissable theatre. Sure, it messes with our minds, but only for 90 minutes. Alzheimer’s lasts forever.
Runs until 26th March, then tours to Richmond and Brighton.