The Father

Tricycle Theatre, London

© Simon Annand

© Simon Annand

Florian Zeller, unknown to British audiences but feted in France and elsewhere in Europe, has clearly been taking lessons from Pinter. The Father reeks of contaminated emotions – barely disguised threats delivered under the most civilised of behaviours. Just the odd cuff round the ear is enough to reduce Kenneth Cranham’s father, André – described by his daughter Anne as, in younger years, `having authority’ – to numb, shivering fear.

Not hard to find echoes of Lear here, with Claire Skinner’s luminous Anne as a latter-day Cordelia. But everything about James Macdonald’s immaculate production – first seen last autumn in Bath (see my colleague’s earlier review) – cries modernity. Spare, controlled, not a word or a movement unmeaningful in Miriam Buether’s elegant Parisian setting that piece by piece becomes an empty, white-walled tomb.

Zeller’s The Father is about our mortal descent and the degeneration that casts once able-bodied individuals into the pit of mental hell and confusion. Zeller may have taken lessons from Pinter, Beckett, Shakespeare et al. But the way he breaks our pattern of perception just as André is experiencing his, is entirely his own.

By the end, like André, we end up wondering who and who not to believe; are these characters phantoms of his imagination, nightmares or a reality that he can barely comprehend?

Macdonald, mining every inflection from Christopher Hampton’s punctilious translation, backs up the impression of a broken mind with clever inter-scene distortions of Bach at his most pure as if mirroring the increasing distortions of André’s mind.

In other hands, the play’s subject might easily have become sentimental. And indeed, the final scene of André clutching at his carer for comfort, reduced to calling for his mummy, touches at the deepest level.

Macdonald’s iron discipline however ensures that this painful charting of the impact of mental collapse on family and carers never wavers. At one point Anne talks of murder; and we see how the increasing vagaries of André’s behaviour effects those around her including her less than sympathetic husband, Pierre.

© Simon Annand

© Simon Annand

By the time the true bereavement hits André and us, The Father has become an exceptionally moving testament to one of the tragedies of our age.

First published in Reviewsgate, May 2015

Runs at the Tricycle Theatre to June 13, 2015