[cw: depression, self harm]
An estranged couple argue about their son. He’s not attended a day of school in three months, and his mother is at the end of her tether. He agrees to move out of his mother’s house and in with his father and his new wife and baby.
The Son is Florian Zeller’s latest play, and it follows a severely depressed young man and his parents’ struggle to help or understand him. It’s at the Duke of York’s theatre on a limited transfer from the Kiln. I feel odd watching plays about domestic dynamics and familial intimacy on these massive West End stages. When the dramatic tension is in someone’s innermost emotion and internal conflict – it’s difficult to zoom in on that. It’s difficult to stage a quiet conversation between family members and have it fill a space, and it’s difficult to dramatise a mental illness that no one understands, least of all the person who has it, and I’m not sure that The Son quite succeeds. From this distance, when Pierre (John Light) exclaims his love for his son with perfect plosives and projection, it feels cold.
All this is to say that I’m trying to recognise the limitations of these archaic, uncomfortable venues. Heck, maybe it’s something to be said for the way old theatres were constructed specifically to hold you at arm’s length, to be exclusionary with their proscenium arches and tiny corridors, none of which is conducive to the way we make theatre today, or the way we function as a society.
There must be better ways to depict men having emotions than have them push over furniture whenever the scene gets intense.
Zeller has such a clout in the UK that this production has some of the best creatives in the game working on it. Lizzie Cachlan’s set is particularly admirable. The action all takes place in a flat in Paris, bourgeois, high-ceilinged comfort, where the walls are scrawled with ink and toys litter the floor. There’s a grand piano which is largely ignored, Pierre preferring to play piano music on his phone. After the first scene, a sack suspended from the ceiling empties itself, littering the floor with toys, junk, artefacts of a life.
It’s become somewhat of a trope in theatre for plays to end with a messy or destructed stage. I like that this play starts with mess, and the rest of the play is pushing back the tide, occasionally tidying up, mostly ignoring. Tripping over toys that could belong to the younger Nicolas or the older baby Sacha, chaos that is constantly swept to the side.
Some neat directing from Michael Longhurst has timelines and scenes bleeding into each other. Actors linger on stage after the other characters no longer acknowledge them. Their presence doesn’t necessarily mean Presence. Like the life of an adult with a child who they can’t, or won’t understand.
Laurie Kynaston as Nicolas is brilliant. The way he sits wrapped in a duvet, not comfortable but not moving, the way he archly and carelessly says ‘I don’t have any friends.’ He holds a charisma and a sweetness, all the while portraying a deep, immovable pain. It’s all heartbreaking, every line. Playing his mother, Amanda Abbington is an empathetic and obviously very accomplished actress, but her part is where the script is at its weakest. She really doesn’t get a lot to do. I’m surprised, that in a play which deals in despair, how the torture of a mother being separated from her son is just brushed off, and I can’t think of a reason for it.
The Son is unapologetically frank and harrowing. That’s its strength. It’s also a failing- I squirm in my seat at the way that self-harm is handled. I even spout a ‘for fuck’s sake’ under my breath when we get the big reveal of Kynaston’s crudely stage make-upped arm. Self harm is a complex thing. It’s a coping mechanism, and it’s very often also a way to deal with suicidal urges – psychiatrists will often monitor and control patients who self harm but they won’t stop them completely. It feels reductive to have the production’s only response to this plot device be a long scream of “I DON’T UNDERSTAAAAAAAND”.
But then, The Son depicts parents who are almost insufferably obtuse. At the end of the play, they discharge their son from a psychiatric ward against medical advice. They are doomed. They want a quick fix. They play piano music from their phones rather than playing the piano.
Nicolas makes a cup of tea and they congratulate themselves on how well he has recovered.
I think, you idiots. You’ve killed him. You idiots.
It’s almost unbearably frustrating, but it’s at that moment that I realise the play has worked. It has made me feel. I come out of the show with a weight in my heart and a promise to myself to try and be a better parent, someday.
The Son is on at Duke of York’s Theatre until 2nd November. More info and tickets here.