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The Father

How Scene is Set by Stage

The Father, written by Florian Zeller, returned to London’s West End for a second run at the Duke of York’s Theatre, February 24 - March 26, 2016. The story of an aging father slowly losing himself to dementia, this moving play reminds us all of what may lie ahead—and touches the hearts of those who have experienced a family member succumb to confusion and uncertainty.

This year’s Olivier Awards saw Kenneth Cranham take home the Best Actor award for his role as Andre. It was also nominated for Best Sound Design, for Christopher Shutt’s work, and Best New Play. There were two writers involved in bringing it to the Duke of York Theatre: Florian Zeller, the French playwright who wrote it, and Christopher Hampton, responsible for the English translation. Zeller’s version won the 2014 Moliere Award for Best Play. Director James Macdonald is the one who pulls it all together for us, returning to the West End from off-Broadway work after his 2014 Obie Award for Best Director.

Andre (Kenneth Cranham) lives in Paris with his daughter (Amanda Drew). At first we see him argue with her, as she is frustrated and helpless in the face of his increasing difficulties. As much as she wants to love and support her father in his old age, she also has her own life to deal with—one marriage ending in divorce, and another on the horizon, but only if she can move to London, which would require leaving her father behind.

a man and a woman talking
Photo by Mark Douet.

The father’s heart-breaking descent creeps in: at first he is simply confused when one scene flows into another time and place without break, leaving him wondering whether everyone around him is going mad. Then, he can’t find his watch—a strand that runs through the play with ever-increasing desperation, no matter how many times it is found and brought back to him. Quickly, Andre starts to meet people he does not recognize, even though they claim to be his son-in-law, his nurse, and even his own daughter.

The tempo of the play increases, and in ever-shorter scenes conversations repeat with different people, and details emerge that seem to cancel out one timeline or another. Has his daughter divorced her abusive ex-husband, or is it the new one who raises a hand to her father? Did it happen at all? What about her moving to London, which she denies ever came up? Whose apartment is this? Andre’s self-confidence and strength of mind is such that at first we almost feel it is all a cruel trick put together by his daughter, perhaps to get rid of the old man. He can’t really be going mad—surely?

Eventually Andre is shipped off to a care facility, where a kindly nurse tells him plainly what has really happened. As Andre breaks down into child-like tears, the opening night audience, too, seemed to get something in their eyes.

Some audience members pick up on it almost immediately; others grasp it slowly, as surely Andre does too. With each change, when the lights come back up, something is missing.

The most interesting facet about this play, however, is the way that his loss is dramatized. The music is jarringly halting between each scene, a staccato beat which is interrupted, rewound, and drowned out by static.  The set design, by Miriam Buether, mirrors Andre’s life story through objects. During transitions we sit in near blackout until bright lights flare up, concealing movement from us. Some audience members pick up on it almost immediately; others grasp it slowly, as surely Andre does too. With each change, when the lights come back up, something is missing. Sometimes it is small—a few decorative vases, some papers from the top of a desk. Other times it is the desk itself, a chair, a whole dining table set with chairs and plates. Even the bookcases disappear, and through doors we glimpse a kitchen and a hallway that both diminish over time. As Andre loses his grip on reality—and his memories—the set is slowly taken apart. Like Andre, we feel this loss keenly.

picture of a man sitting
Photo by Simon Annand.

The way the set is used helps us to feel and understand deeply the perspective of the character, in a way that dialogue and plot points alone cannot. At first we wonder if it was a trick of our eyes—was there really something different about the bookcase a moment ago? This makes the play all the more poignant, as we too experience a betrayal of the senses, and the stripping away of all that is familiar. By the end of the play, the set has transformed into a hospital room. It is only this final metamorphoses which allows us to understand the truth.

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