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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE FATHER
at Wyndham's Theatre

A MIND DISSOLVED
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Claire Skinner and Kenneth Cranham/ Ph: Simon Annand

Not to be confused with August Strindberg’s groundbreaking Swedish domestic drama of 1887, Florian Zeller’s The Father is a contemporary study in dementia that won for its 35-year-old author – unknown here but a star in France – a Moliere award for the best new French play of 2014. It arrives in the West End via successful runs earlier this year at the Theatre Royal, Bath and the Tricycle Theatre, adding lustre to one of London’s most invigorating theatre seasons in years.
 
Christopher Hampton’s finely nuanced translation begins with a straightforward confrontation between Andre (Kenneth Cranham) and his daughter Anne (Claire Skinner). Andre is suffering from dementia (or Alzheimer’s) and, with great difficulty Anne, is attempting to tell him that she has met someone called Pierre (Nicholas Gleaves) and is about to leave Paris (where the play is set) for London. She has, she says, arranged for a carer called Laura (Kirsty Oswald) to move in with him.
 
From a narrative perspective, that’s about as clear as it gets. What follows in the next 80 minutes (no intermission) is a graphically disturbing exploration of the stranglehold and devastating effects Alzheimer’s has not only on the patient in question but also on those closest to him. Zeller shows reality splintering into confusing, half-remembered thoughts as characters and the actors playing them change identities from scene to scene. In effect, what we’re experiencing, through a painful process of dramatic osmosis, is the terrible effects of this cruel disease from inside Andre’s decaying brain. The impact is devastating.
 
Imperceptibly, various items of furniture in Andrea’s apartment disappear until he is too discombobulated to realise he has moved from his own home to his daughter’s, then to a hospice where he is cared for by a nurse (Rebecca Charles) who, as he reverts to childhood in the play’s heartbreaking final moments, compassionately cradles him as he cries for his mummy.
 
At the performance I attended there were at least 15 seconds of total silence between the final blackout and the curtain call – something I have never experienced before in a lifetime of theatre going. The audience was clearly shattered.
 
If it’s not a contradiction in terms to say so, the key element in director James Macdonald’s surgically precise direction is the sense of disorientation it conveys. The play echoes, on occasion, a subtly sinister sense of Pinteresque menace – most notably in the character of Anne’s boyfriend Pierre, who may or may not be physically abusing Andre. By blurring the contours of reality, the audience takes on Andrea’s confusion as it tries to make sense of a mind in tatters.
 
Brilliantly conveying this painful descent into Lear-like madness, Cranham gives a shattering, award-worthy performance. His mood-swings from insensitive despot to humorous charmer (though harrowing, the play is not without humour) are compellingly conveyed. Nor, in his most vulnerable moments, does he ever play for sympathy. A truly great performance.
 
Skinner’s Anne also eschews any hint of sentimentality as she negotiates a tightrope between her character’s basic compassion for her father and the ruthlessness of her decision to leave him in a care home. The rest of the performances are all excellent.
 
The play’s sparse, no-frills, often chilly ambiance is conveyed in Miriam Buether’s clinical set, which, like Andre’s mind, is slowly stripped of its furniture. Stunning. And unforgettable.

 


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