The Father is a meditation on Alzheimer’s – dramatizing the disorientation and isolation of eighty year old Andre and the strains his condition puts upon his relationship with his daughter. Novelist and playwright Florian Zeller’s formal innovation is to replicate this experience for the audience – as furniture vanishes, dialogue is repeated and actions from previous scenes are falsely recollected, all discretely enough to be really quite unsettling. The objective of forcing empathy with Andre’s plight is in this sense effectively realised.
The problem with the play is that beneath the smart concept there isn’t really that much content. The personal moral dilemma of whether or not to send an ageing parent to a nursing home is a difficult but familiar one – and the play offers few fresh insights. More problematic is the flimsiness of the backstory – with gravitas attached to a dead sister and a broken marriage that is ultimately unearned, as the information is too sparse and our investment too little.
This said, the production is impeccable. James Macdonald’s direction and Miriam Buether’s design are both very slick – as glaring white lights frame the proscenium, shielding snappy set changes so that (like Simon Stone’s recent Wild Duck) the time jumps have a filmic tightness. Kenneth Graham and Claire Skinner’s performances as father and daughter are technically impeccable, and they have mined the script to find a relationship with a recognisable and convincing admixture of affection and resentment (though we as an audience still crave further explanation!).
In short this play suffers from not knowing what it is: a naturalistic family drama centred around complex character histories, or a formally exploratory meditation on a theme with characters are vehicles for concepts, continuing a tradition that runs from August Strindberg through to Caryl Churchill. And yet it remains an intelligent and surprising piece – made the most of by Macdonald’s excellent production.