Can a play really take an audience into a dementia-stricken mind? In the latest offering from Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre, directed by Mark Thompson, the answer is a resounding yes.
Written by famed French novelist, playwright and director Florian Zeller, ‘The Father’ is a poignant story of one man's journey into the wilderness of dementia. Darkly funny moments provide some light relief but this Moliere award-winning play is unflinching in its exploration of the devastating impact of the disease on sufferers and those around them.
An unsettling ambiguity permeates the script, translated by Christopher Hampton. Certainties are soon cast aside as even the setting of the action is thrown into question. Andre (Brian Wilson), the father of the title, is an elderly man with dementia being cared for by his daughter Anne (Jenny Thurston). Andre’s confusion quickly becomes our own: are we in his Paris flat or that of his daughter? Who are the people trying to help us? What time is it?
Seeing the world through Andre’s eyes is deeply unnerving and frightening; he is undoubtedly at the core of the emotional impact of the play but we also sympathise hugely with his daughter, burdened with responsibility and guilt-ridden about the difficult decisions to be made about her father’s future care. Anne’s husband Pierre (Eduardo White) adds another layer of complexity to the family dynamics, frustrated and impatient about his father-in-law’s increasingly erratic behaviour.
In several more lucid exchanges, Brian Wilson’s performance captures glimpses of the charming man Andre used to be before dementia struck. These moments of cheekiness and affability are fleeting, quickly consumed by suspicion, defensiveness and overwhelming confusion as he becomes increasingly detached from reality. The play has an epic Shakespearean quality at times, echoes of King Lear ringing down the centuries as a father-daughter relationship is tested to the limit.
Deep resentments about sacrifices made jostle with love and denial in Jenny Thurston’s performance as daughter Anne. Her description of a nightmare in which she strangles her father powerfully evokes the suppressed rage and guilt wrought by a disease which cannot be controlled. Katie Siggs’ kindness and warmth as carer Laura seems patronising and threatening when seen through Andre’s eyes, and James Booth’s lighting, sequences of bright flashes, works well to take us even further into the abyss of dementia.
Charles Michael and Jess Shannon, listed in the cast as ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ morph between roles in Andre’s confused mind as Keith Harris’ set is slowly dismantled leaving a bare stage in which we are both everywhere and nowhere. Mood swings and anger give way to utter confusion: “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves” whispers Andre. “The branches, and the wind, and the rain. I don’t know what’s happening anymore.”
Dementia has been described as mourning someone who is still alive. By taking us into the mind of the sufferer, Zeller’s beautifully crafted play offers a unique perspective, humanising a horrifying illness. The image of Jess Shannon’s nurse cradling Andre – care, exhaustion and patient resignation brilliantly captured in her eyes – is one which will stay with me. A deeply affecting and moving production.
The Father is playing in the Crescent Theatre’s Ron Barber studio in Birmingham from 27th to 3rd June 2023.