Lear casts his shadow over The Father, an intriguing, confounding thriller of a play.
André is 80 and once again he seems to have lost his watch, which is not so very odd. But why do people keep moving the furniture around? Why does his daughter keep contradicting herself? And who are all the strange people who keep arriving?
André – a former engineer and perhaps a one-time tap dancer – is the main protagonist in The Father, a 2012 play by French writer Florian Zeller, which won France’s prestigious Molière Award for Best Play. Translated by British playwright Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses), it had British seasons in Bath and North London before moving into the West End in 2015.
The Guardian called The Father a “slippery but hugely rewarding play”, saying: “It’s a play that constantly confounds expectations and works almost like a thriller, with a sinister Pinteresque edge, as complete strangers keep on turning up at André’s flat.” Last year it was produced in America on Broadway where the New York Times critic said that it “offers one of the most disorienting experiences in town”. Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Companies are now co-producing the Australian premiere, with veteran actor John Bell as André.
The Father takes a fascinating look at a mind in decay. Bell says he was drawn to the play because of its originality. “There are a lot of plays written now, for obvious reasons, about old age. The audience gets older and more concerned about friends and relatives entering the twilight years. There’s a clear audience interest in the subject,” he says.
“I don’t want to give any spoiler alerts by saying too much about the play because it is a bit of a mystery. I just want to say it’s about facing up to the difficulties of old age, and the problems are told from within the man. It’s his point of view, how he sees the world. Generally, we’re used to seeing plays of this sort depicting people in certain stages of old age, seen from the outside, but rarely with a vision from the inside. I guess King Lear is the obvious example – I guess that’s a rather strong parallel with this play.”
While Lear casts a strong shadow, Zeller has acknowledged that Pinter was an influence – something that Bell recognises in the writing. “There’s a degree of absurdity which you get in early Pinter plays like The Dumb Waiter, even No Man’s Land. There’s a kind of weirdness and oddness: Whereabouts are we? Who’s sane here? Who’s crazy in this world? You do get that in Pinter, that real sense of dislocation and anxiety that runs through them,” he says.
Bell is very much looking forward to working again with Damien Ryan, Artistic Director of Sport for Jove, who is directing The Father. “When I did Henry 4 in 2014, I asked Damien to co-direct that with me. It was a revival of a production I’d done earlier, so it was still my production, but I wanted to play Falstaff, and I didn’t want to be directing myself. So Damien came on board and worked with me, and we got on really well together, and I love him as a director. I think he’s a wonderful director and actor, and I’m just really relishing the prospect of having him direct me in this play,” says Bell.
Zeller has said that in writing the play he drew on memories of his aging grandmother who developed dementia when he was growing up. Asked if he too has experience of aging family members struggling mentally, Bell says: “My mother was a pretty classic case, and now my sister unfortunately is going through the same thing. So I’ve been really close to it.”
His research is pretty close to hand then? “Oh, yes indeed,” he says. “But then again, it is in the writing too. With a play as well-written as this, you don’t have to do much research because the author’s done it for you. What you have to do is tap into the writing. But of course, any personal experience will help, and makes you confident you’re on the right track. Also, emotionally, you can dip into that.”
Though The Father may sound grim, by all accounts it’s not. “It is called ‘a tragic farce’, so it’s not all that heavy going. A lot of it is quite funny in the way that older people, especially in different stages of confusion, can say and do very funny things,” says Bell. “So it is funny a lot of the time, and at certain points it becomes intensely emotional.”
The Father plays at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1, August 19 – October 21, and Arts Centre Melbourne, November 2 – December 16