Wyndham’s Theatre, London – booking until 1 December 2018
I saw this on tour in Cambridge, and heroically held off telling you until the West End embargo lifted. It’s wonderful: puzzling, moving, clever and humane.
A daughter, kind and faintly exasperated, coaxes her father. He stares from the window, speaks with sudden authority about strawberry jam and biscotti and with alarming ferocity. His ability to cope and think straight is fading before our eyes, and she is edging him towards selling the big book-lined house where he has lived 50 years with his wife. People keep bringing flowers round. So far, so sadly recognisable. A widower.
But hang on, the wife is still there, bustling in to make mushroom casserole and tutting at the flowers. What? And she and the daughter, then another daughter, are talking in the past tense about the old man’s fame as a great writer and editing his diaries. In the first brief, transparent-curtain pause of this 80 minute play the audience was muttering “which one is dead? Both? What?” “I think it’s in one of their heads,” said an uncertain voice “or the daughter’s.” “Or she’s mourning because he’s got dementia.” Which of course is a kind of bereavement too: maybe the old man, sometimes strangely unheard by the others on the stage, is the one who is gone.
We have learned in the past couple of years just how efficiently the French shape-shifter of a playwright Florian Zeller can thoroughly mess with our heads, and how well-judged and flowing are Christopher Hampton’s translations. Our heads spin and then, in jerks, our hearts move. Nobody forgets the sneaky sex-cheating brilliance of The Lie and The Truth, and even more vividly the alienated confusions of The Mother and Kenneth Cranham’s triumph in the heartbreaking The Father, exploring the dislocations and irrealities of Alzheimer’s. He is a master of illusion, confusion, the fierce fleeting certainties and timeshifts of dementia.
In this play, faultlessly directed by Jonathan Kent, the strangeness and pathos are extreme. Because though indeed Jonathan Pryce’s patriarch is in rising dementia, and Eileen Atkins his living – or dead – wife, the theme above all is love: settled, interdependent, half-century devotion. It has had challenges; a disturbing visitor, sometimes from the care home, sometimes something else entirely, makes that clear. But the core of it is bereavement: and as Dr Johnson said, the condition of any friendship is that one party must one day mourn the other.
The reality of the characters is total: Pryce’s father , Atkins’ patiently affectionate and occasionally acerbic wife, who at one point reflects, as many an ageing parent does, that while it is nice when the daughters visit it is good when they go and the pair are together, comfortable.
Gradually we learn which way round it is, which conversations are unreal because they are memories, and which are simply delusions. We are always in the same kitchen with the bookshelves and hall beyond, and the window where the old man looks out for his wife changes its light, so we grasp how times of day and evening shift. A final lighting effect is honestly devastating.
box office 0844 4825120 to 1 December