THE FATHER, Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company at Wharf 1 Theatre, 24 August-21 October 2017. Photography by Philip Erbacher: above - Anita Hegh and John Bell, below - Glenn Hazeldine and John Bell; below again - John Bell and Faustina Agolley
Written by Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton, The Father is one of the more challenging and unusual plays you’re likely to see this, or any other, year. It’s both an illustration and exploration of the human mind and also an ingenious portrait of story-telling itself. How truths are subjective, malleable and fluid; how we instinctively seek absolutes where there are none and how we are eternally disconcerted by what this means – in our lives and stories.
The central figure in this puzzle is André (John Bell) and the slippage in his mind and daily life is mirrored, alarmingly, in how the ground continually shifts beneath the audience’s feet. Whatever we think we have been told, or think we know, is confounded or contradicted minutes later; and all the time, what we see is incrementally shifting too.
The setting for this Parisian tale is an outwardly elegant apartment in that city, home to André and his eldest daughter Anne (Anita Hegh). “Outwardly elegant” because there is something awry with the spacious, partially wood-panelled living room (designed by Alicia Clements).
This is middle class Paris yet the furnishings are sparse, barely adequate; there are no pictures, no personality. The white paint is arid rather than urbane, emphasised by Rachel Burke's chilly lighting. The bleakness is made more obvious by several small sculptures on a mantel shelf and a vase on the hallway credenza. A coat hook is jarringly placed in the living area (not the entrance hall); the wall phone’s position changes without rhyme or reason.
These incongruities are slight but enough to create a vague sense of unease – for the viewer, that is – André, a widower and retired engineer, is avuncular, charming and relaxed. Then Anne tells him she is moving to London because she has met someone and wants to be with him. And actually, the apartment they are living in is hers, not his; and it soon turns out, she has a husband who apparently knows nothing of her plans.
Coming in and out of André’s days as his confusion grows are various people, played with a disturbing mixture of plausible appeal and understated menace by Glenn Hazeldine, Faustina Agolley, Marco Chiappi and Natasha Herbert. As significant to André and our slowly dawning realisation of how it is (or might be...) is his wristwatch: lost, mislaid, stolen or hidden, perhaps or perhaps not. All these possibilities add to a terrifying understanding of what it would be like to lose the most precious possession of all: one’s mind.
Under Damien Ryan’s delicate, intelligent and masterly direction, John Bell has never been better. The gradual progress of his regression is relentless, nuanced, occasionally sweetly comical, then frightening and eventually heart-wrenching. Anita Hegh is the perfect co-partner: three-dimensional, probable and heartfelt yet as elusively discomfiting as a nightmare. Adding gradations to the process are the persistent interruptions of blackouts between complete or fragmentary scenes accompanied by Steve Francis’s edgy sound design.
Rarely, if ever, can a disintegrating mind have been so persuasively illuminated and viscerally experienced by an audience. The stunned and prolonged silence at the end of the opening night performance was testimony to the power of the play and its actors. The only reason why there wasn’t an instant standing ovation was probably because no one could move. At just over 90 minutes, The Father is one of the most moving and extraordinary experiences I can remember. Recommended.