Harold Pinter is after Beckett surely the most imitated of the post war British playwrights, perhaps because many of his most successful plays take that most familiar and cherished of institutions, the home, and transform it into a territory where only the fittest survive.Pinter’s plays speak strongly to our collective anxiety over our power to control our lives and those around us.The home as battleground device is so resonant for British audiences because it enables a subtly relentless grab for power to play out in a tightly confined and contested space, where characters’ knowledge of the other player’s personal histories becomes one of their key weapons. Florian Zeller runs with this theme in The Father to explore how dementia sufferers can be disarmed by the subtleties of language and the opportunities the failure in memory affords families who seek to manipulate their elderly relatives.
Translated into English from the original French by Christopher Hamilton, The Father had a sell out run at the Tricycle theatre in 2015 and transferred to the Wyndham’s theatre later that year. The protagonist, Andre, is an elderly man afflicted with dementia, and is cared for by his anxious daughter, Anne. Over the course of the play we see Anne struggling to find a carer for her father whilst trying to maintain a relationship with Pierre, who may or may not be physically abusing Andre. At the play’s climax Andre is confined to a nursing home. A simple enough story, and one which is perhaps all too familiar for many children caring for elderly relatives, but The Father’s power lies in the shifting perspectives Zeller tells the story from. This leads to deliberate inconsistencies in the information the characters give the audience, making it impossible to determine if what we are seeing is real or is in fact occurring in Andre’s mind. Like Pinter, Zeller uses dialogue to unnerve reality, to the point where the meaning of words becomes less important than how the characters use them to establish dominance.
In Scene One Anne says she is moving to London to live with Pierre, but then in Scene Three denies ever having mentioned moving. Andre is convinced that the apartment he lives in is his, but we become less sure of this as the play progresses. Any grasp Andre and we hold onto this reality is tenuous. This is further complicated by the suspicion that a larger, secretive game is being played out just at the corner of our eye.
In Scene Two a man walks into the living room claiming to be Anne’s husband. Andre doesn’t recognise him and insists that he is a stranger. Man’s impatient explanation that the flat is his leads us to assume that Andre has forgotten where he is. Man’s version of events is that Andre moved out of his apartment whilst a new carer could be found for him. When Anne enters she is played by a different actor from the one in Scene One. She comforts Andre but in a crucial moment does not answer when he asks if the flat is his or not.
The power of these two scenes derives from Andre’s skewed perspective. Which version are we to believe? Trusting Andre instantly requires the audience to analyse the motives of the other characters. Indeed, when we first see Andre in Scene Two he is searching for the phone number of his lawyer because of how he is being “treated”. Important events have clearly taken place off-stage that have lead to his distress, which are eluded to in Anne’s dialogue at the end of the first scene: “I’ll come back and see you often. At weekends. But I can’t leave you here all on your own. It’s not possible. That’s why. If you refuse to have a carer, I’m going to have to…” The unfinished sentence gives a sinister edge to Anne’s intentions that is further exacerbated by her refusal to qualify the statement when Andre repeatedly asks her what she is going to do. If Anne followed her original plan to move to London to live with Pierre then it becomes possible that Andre is entirely correct and Man and Woman are not Anne and Pierre. Could it be possible that Anne, driven to despair, has employed two actors to play herself and her husband so that she may lead a double life independently of Andre? Making Andre believe that the flat is not his might be an attempt by Man and Woman to steal his property. Such conspiratorial scenarios are easy to envisage if we trust Andre’s version of events, but his failure to recognise either Man or Woman is entirely congruent with his mental condition. It might very well be that Andre is seeing Pierre as Antoine, Anne’s ex-husband, but cannot bring him into his orbit of comprehension. We cannot even be sure the conversation isn’t a hallucination, which given that Man disappears after he enters the kitchen is likely, that is until one considers the significance of the slippages in time that occur throughout the play.
In Scene Five Pierre confronts Andre and asks, “How much longer do you intend hanging around getting on everybody’s tits?” The moment is repeated in Scene Ten but this time it is Man asking the question. The final scene is set in a nursing home, replete with white, bare walls, and an institutional bed. Andre’s mental health has rapidly deteriorated and his family are no-where to be seen. Woman and Man from Scene Two, who we learn are named Martine and Olivier, enter dressed as nurses. Brian Doherty exuded quiet menace as he stared at Andre, asking as he does in Scenes Two and Ten, “Everything all right?” whilst Rebecca Charles comforted Andre in exactly the same way as she did in Scene Two. Anne, Pierre, Martine and Olivier are not discrete characters. The actions of both bleed into the other until it is impossible to tell where these events had their origin.
The nursing home does not appear as an entirely different space than the flat. Slowly but surely it emerges as bits of furniture disappear over the course of the previous fourteen scenes. Maybe we have always been here, but that is not to say the previous scenes are only Andre’s imagined version. Zeller allows us to imagine the horror of living in a perpetually confused state, where the most straightforward elements in one’s life lose constantly reinvent themselves into familiar yet oblique shapes, by making narrative distortions that make us doubt the veracity of everything we have previously watched. By aligning the stage action with Andre’s memories, Zeller clashes multiple narratives together until it becomes impossible to tell truth from illusion.
The way Zeller fractures the dramaturgy to allow certain moments from some scenes to appear in others is a highly effective means of portraying how Andre’s memories are jumbled to the point where we are never sure of anybody’s identity. The Father’s success stems from the line it walks between dramatic story and an exploration of a disintegrating mind. To emphasise the former would root the play firmly in realism and would very much be Anne’s story. By telling the story from Andre’s perspective the details of the narrative become less important than in how the story is formulated. The structural and aesthetic devices Zeller employs deftly dramatize a rationally unintelligible world where the rules of the game are constantly re-writing themselves. The mind does not deteriorate suddenly. Dementia encroaches, skulks, and circles a person until they are engulfed by it. Any attempt to ground the events of the play through the lens of realism diminishes the significance of Andre’s experiences. For him, they exist as real occurrences. They are an amalgam of memories, each having a link with a past event, which may or may not be imagined. As the focus zeroes in on Andre at the play’s climax, with him crying for his mummy asking to go home and being comforted by a stranger, Zeller adroitly forces us to confront the fact that we all have fathers and mothers who might very well be destined for the same fate.