Shakespeare described life’s last scene of all as being “second childishness and mere oblivion….sans everything”. French writer Florian Zeller now expands that scene into this 90 minute play, translated by Christopher Hampton. “The Father” is Andre, played with intense feeling by Kenneth Cranham, a retired engineer, once a man of intellect and dignity, now afflicted by the onset of dementia and clinging desperately to the wreckage of his life. His only surviving daughter, Anne, is torn between duty towards her father and living her own life. The set-up seems to suggest that we are in for a worthy if rather routine drama about caring for the elderly, but Zeller’s novel twist is to tell the story from the perspective of Andre, rather than from that of Anne, thereby giving the audience an insight into Andre’s nightmare. Each short scene ends with the stage blackening and then, after a brief spell of grating music, the lights return for us to see possibly the same room, but with some slight difference – perhaps an unfamiliar character appears or a piece of furniture disappears – and what is said may contradict what we have been told previously. As Andre becomes confused and disorientated, we share in his experience, unable to distinguish between truth and make-believe, not knowing exactly where we are. The device is executed brilliantly and it also opens the door for some delightful comedy to relieve the gloom of a tragic situation. Andre’s regression from proud senior citizen back to childhood and eventually infancy is played out as something like a harrowing comedy. The great strength of Cranham’s performance is his ability to show us the man that Andre once was as well as the pale shadow of him that he has become. Claire Skinner matches him by bringing out the suffering of Anne as she tries to care for her father, only to be faced with wounding insults from him and little support from her partner. James Macdonald’s sensitive production is seldom sombre in tone as it charts a tragic and unstoppable decline and it becomes deeply moving when the play reaches its own last scene.
Performance date: 20 May 2015