André is getting on in years. He remains in good physical condition, but his mind is failing. The protagonist’s disintegrating memory in Florian Zeller’s internationally acclaimed play The Father brings us through a narrative that vacillates in its reliability. We are constantly disoriented, like its subject, confused by the incoherence of people, places and time. Without any dependable means to decipher and interact with the world, André struggles to maintain a cogent sense of self; if the external cannot be appropriately explained, so too will the internal begin to lose meaning.
Zeller is one of France's most celebrated contemporary playwrights. Here in Christopher Hampton's translation, his depiction of that mental decline, in its theatrical form, offers a valuable opportunity for the condition to be better understood. What could only be an abstract concept, that hitherto relied only on our emphatic imagination, becomes a much more powerful appreciation of an unfortunate state of being. Damien Ryan’s direction makes us feel as though we experience it firsthand. The 90-minute play however, has little new to say besides. After early scenes of quite thrilling revelations, things get old quickly. The show dissolves into predictability and repetitiveness, and when we arrive at what should be an emotional zenith, a surprising placidity is encountered instead.
The roles are performed well, each one lucid and believable. John Bell’s star quality keeps us firmly engaged with André’s plight. It is a robust portrayal, with an emphasis on the character’s dignity at a time of hardship, although a greater sense of vulnerability would make for more poignant drama. Daughter Anne, is played with an admirable realism by Anita Hegh, but the writing seems to restrict the actor to a slightly monotonous interpretation of her role. In the absence of a congruous timeline, characters are prevented from developing very dynamically. They appear in fragments, and the players are accordingly concise.
This Australian première production is simple and elegant, with Alicia Clements’ set and costume design placing us confidently in an upper class existence where carers and nursing homes are matters of remorse rather than cost. Age and death come to us all, and as we watch a good man deteriorate, it should only be with resignation and acquiescence that we regard the closing scene. Yet we resist, instinctively rejecting the truth of our mortality.