John Bell stars as an elderly man losing his marbles in STC’s oddly unengaging production of a French stage hit
What happens when the world stops making sense? When a person can no longer rely on their own memory, or sense of reality, to help them through the day? The Father, the hit play by French playwright Florian Zeller (it won Molière, Olivier and Tony Awards, as well as major theatre awards in Ireland, Israel, Brazil and South Africa), is an elegant but surface-skimming study of exactly that loss of mental equilibrium.
André (John Bell) is the titular father. He was either an engineer or a dancer, but when we meet him, ensconced in his chic Paris flat, he’s not doing well. His daughter Anne (Anita Hegh) is concerned about her father’s future. He has just dismissed his carer because he thinks she’s stolen his watch. But has she really?
And are we even in André’s flat at all? Are we actually in Anne’s home? And is that home in London or Paris? Is she living with Antoine or Pierre? Is one of those men threatening André? Why doesn’t André’s other daughter Elise (“the one I love,” he says) ever visit?
It’s quickly apparent that André is not a reliable narrator. He’s suffering from some kind of degenerative illness – perhaps Alzheimer’s – though the affliction is never named. The playwright gently bends reality to help us see the world as André does: mutable and disorienting. Anne comes through the door, but instead of Hegh, she might be Natasha Herbert. Her partner is either Glenn Hazeldine or Marco Chiappi. Furniture disappears; the landline is suddenly mounted on a different wall; André no longer remembers where he is.
It all plays out on Alicia Clements’ tasteful and chic recreation of a Paris flat. A skylight, as part of Rachel Burke’s lighting design, helps situate us in time (we can’t rely on André and his missing watch – or the watch he says he has in his head – but we can rely on the light).
The Father is marketed as a mystery but Damien Ryan's production (his STC directing debut) has little thriller tension; with its clean design and gliding shifts in perception, we don’t feel André’s suffering so much as we cluck our tongues at his plight. Ryan's smoothing directorial hand has a sanitising effect: it feels like more effort has been spent ensuring all the subtle shifts in place and time are accounted for than in exploring the emotional reality of the story.
When you strip the script (translated by Christopher Hampton) of its reality-shifting gimmick, it’s quite simple and easily digestible; there are no great truths here about the terror of ageing. The play is frequently compared to King Lear – both involve a old man losing his kingdom (or personhood) who doesn’t appreciate his daughter – but it doesn't begin to approach Shakespeare in profundity or poignance.
The role of André has proved to be something of awards bait for the actor playing him. He gets to charm and prod at Laura (Faustina Agolley), his new carer; to rail against his enemies, real or imagined; to speak eloquently and cuttingly to his daughter. John Bell is a peacock in the role: showy and affected and proud, quite out of step with Hegh’s lovely, naturalistic approach to Anne – and consequently, it’s easier to care for Anne than André.
Ryan never succeeds in reconciling the two performance styles and because Anne and André’s relationship is the emotional core of the play, the audience is left adrift. That said, the closing scenes do supply a heart-tugging moment: too late to save the production as a whole, but it may give some the gift of a good cry.