André thinks his nurse has been stealing from him. He thinks his daughter has her eye on his flat. He’s pretty sure she’s divorced from her husband Antoine, and she might be seeing someone new. There’s a strange man in the flat. It is his flat, isn’t it?
Although the play never uses the word ‘Alzheimers’, Florian Zeller plunges his audience into the headspace of André (Kenneth Cranham), an 80 year old man who doesn’t want help, but can’t survive on his own. Beginning with a confrontation with his daughter Anne (Claire Skinner) who says she is moving to London with her new partner, Pierre. In every subsequent scene some little detail contradicts the previous one. New actors arrive in the place of established characters. Furniture is absent on lights up. We are experiencing this play as André – lost in time and unreliable memory.
As Anne’s own account seems confused we cannot take refuge in sympathising with her familiar plight – driven to put her own plans on hold to look after her father. A few scenes in we’re convinced she’s playing some kind of cruel trick on him. His watch is on his wrist, and then it’s gone. He’s in his pyjamas, but is it 8am or 8pm?
Zeller’s plays are performed regularly France and Germany, and this production which opened in the Theatre Royal Bath Ustinov Studio is his first in English. His play The Mother, also produced by Theatre Royal Bath and adapted by Christopher Hampton, opens 21st May. But there is a thoroughly English tradition recognisable in Zeller’s play – which Hampton picks up, “he borrows the plot of Pinter’s Betrayal forLa Verite and he turns it into a farce. In The Father there is a hint of Pinteresque menace.” When Pierre – it is, Pierre, yes? – has André alone and smarms: “I was just wondering how long you were planning to hang around here getting on everyone’s tits”, it’s almost indistinguishable from The Homecoming’s Lenny speaking to his father: “Look, why don’t you just … pop off, eh?”. And it makes Cranham’s casting especially apt, as he played The Homecoming’s terrifying father, Max, in the Almeida’s 2008 production, ranting blindly against a family he couldn’t control, with his stories or his stick.
Both Max and André are considerably less charming than they imagine themselves to be, and become infantile when they are confronted by the harsh facts of their years, but we wouldn’t wish André’s fate on anyone – because we’re experiencing it at the same time. Between scenes we hear snatches of classical piano repeating and stuttering, our ears craving resolution. We have flashes of LEDs that box the stage and our vision during the blackouts. And so we don’t notice that missing desk, that missing chair. We make sense of what is in front of us, as André is constantly trying to. The purposefully frustrating elements of the production and the play – these unpleasant blackouts like lost time, the slipperiness of facts and names and faces – are satisfyingly paid off once the final scene has given up its secrets. But it is fair to say that secrets it has are few, given the conspiracy theories we’ve been invited to create. The art of this play is not found in the arcs of plot and character, but in recognising the state of mind the play arouses in us – not simple pity for André or his daughter, but fear of uncoupling from the world, adrift in ourselves, and helpless.