The Father by Florian Zeller at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, the latest fine French play beautifully translated by playwright Christopher Hampton, will no doubt be said to be about dementia. If I had been told that, I would probably have avoided going to it. I don’t like plays about subjects, and as my older sister who lives round the corner from us has been declining into ever more severe Alzheimer’s for at least eight years I know already a great deal more than I wish to know about what is involved with this kind of severe cognitive disorder. Yes, it is grim and pathetic – both for the sufferer and for those dealing with their disorder. Actually it is all about the challenge of responsibility, which is why the phrase ‘second childhood’ is quite meaningful – though the reward for nurturing through first childhood is viability and maturity for the object of one’s love, whereas the prospect after second childhood is the grim reaper, and the sooner the better for all concerned. But Zeller’s play is a perfect theatrical exercise in the reality of ‘I do not think straight, therefore I am not’ – the horrifying destruction of Descartes’s ‘Cogito ergo sum’. Kenneth Cranham as André, the Father, is there in a number of scenes which may or may not in real time follow each other, which sometimes may almost be repeating the same scene – but different actors play different parts. How many daughters does he have? We see Anne (played by Claire Skinner with incredible sensitivity and delicacy), and gradually piecing together what we see, we realize there was once another sister who has died. We see her partner, and a character listed only as ‘Man’ who might be that partner or an ex-husband, or not. We see two carers (was one a sister, or just ‘Woman’?) – we see the aftermath of a row with a carer.
Disruption in memory
This is all the stuff of looking after my sister, as I well know – though Zeller does not have the Father, André, imagining that the person he sees in a mirror is someone other than himself, or that the people on the telly are actually present in the next room, or that I am our father, who died in 1989, or perhaps her long dead and loathed husband whose name she never mentions, or mysteriously that grown man in her life who has always figured and been a bit of pressure and a problem, me Tom her once kid bro. Zeller in the play does not show André as cognitively incapable of focusing the other side of a glass window, like my sister who could not wave to me at Paddington as she could not see through the glass. Jane is my sister still, and there are moments of clarity. But really she is not my sister, she is relics of my sister fragmented distressingly.
To write a play in which the disruption in memory becomes a living truth for us is to do exactly that journey in perception for which the theatre exists. I could not ignore the genius with which Zeller showed the human feelings as experienced and shared between André with the condition, wonderfully explored and registered by Cranham, and those dealing with the so demanding and sad situation – sadder even than death. Of course Shakespeare’s King Lear has some great wisdom about this – the degrees of madness, the truths that may emerge.
Coarse and facile
Everyman at the National rewritten by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy with a God the Mother plodding around with a damp mop to clean the floor, and a humorous Irish Death (Dermot Crowley), is just too coarse and facile an exercise. Kate Duchêne as God also plays Good Deeds, and there’s no devil – which tells you the kind of ‘morality’ play this Everyman has now become.
Climate change plays a role, with wind streaming into the auditorium and lots of bits of paper. Rufus Norris’s production, a first from the new director of the National, wields all the trappings of West End musical theatre today – amplification and thumping bass etc.
It would have been wiser to have got a new translation of the Hugo von Hofmannsthal reworking, product of theatrical genius, which is still being used at the Salzburg Festival almost a century after it was first staged there. But the National Theatre is now obsessed with new writing and has no more modesty than the rest of the West End where classics are always reworked so that more profit can be made and channelled to the current artists, whether or not they are inferior. Morality remains the name of the game – even if the process of salvation is unrecognizable as a concept in this new version. How can one show healing on stage if one omits – because ‘nobody believes that stuff’ – the religious side?
Alan Ayckbourn’s farces or perhaps comedies have all been moralities. But his 1981 work Way Upstream which was brilliantly restaged by Nadia Fall at the Chichester Festival Theatre makes the old morality model function perfectly for an age of little faith by ending its story in a kind of heaven – where virtue really finds its reward. Basically this is (as usual with Ayckbourn) a comic demonstration of how the worm turns and the victims of a bully somehow almost miraculously get liberated. It is, as with all Ayckbourn plays, incredibly well observed, and the Chichester cast simply could not have been bettered. Ayckbourn is an undervalued genius and no doubt not the latest thing. He does not tell you what to think: he just shows you, by implication, the truth. A classic gift. ND