The Father – Footnotes
Brief Footnotes to our episode on The Father expand on the subjects of the changing set in the play, and the significance of Andre’s watch.
The changing set
We talked during the episode about the deliberate confusion that the playwright creates as to the specific identity of the setting that the action takes place in. The stage direction that precedes the first scene in the published text of the play reads simply “Andre’s flat“. It seems clear from the dialogue that unfolds that Andre’s daughter Anne is indeed visiting Andre in his flat during this opening scene. So far so good. The printed stage direction at the top of the second scene says “Same room”. However, during the course of the scene the man playing Anne’s husband Pierre tells Andre that this is their flat not his, as he believes. So where are we? As simultaneously a further diversion, and perhaps a clue to what is happening onstage, the direction for scene three advises: “Simultaneously the same room and a different room. Some furniture has disappeared; as the scenes proceed, the set sheds certain elements, until it becomes and empty, neutral space.” The clue is also a challenge to the set designer to create a room that could at a glance be both the original room and a different one. The set that retains a continuity while at the same time also changes defies specific identification, and results in our vicariously experiencing the same confusion about the surroundings as Andre does. He is not certain about where he is, and nor are we.
Andre is repeatedly preoccupied during the play by the whereabouts of his wrist watch. As Christopher pointed out during our conversation, it is not uncommon for people suffering from dementia to lose things, including by putting them away in a specific place and then forgetting their having done so. We all do this of course, but it becomes more of a problem with the advanced loss of short term memory. For Andre the special place for his watch is a particular kitchen cupboard, and when Anne finds it there for him, he is offended that she knows about his hiding place. Her knowing something so personal feels like an invasion of his privacy, and his anger in response is partly an expression of his frustration and fear at his own frailties. As James Joyce said, “all anger is anger with yourself.”
His suspicion that the carer Isabelle, and then his son-in-law Pierre, have stolen his watch, also reflects his general unease. It would certainly be natural to be wary of people that you did not recognise who appear in your flat and behave in such a strangely familiar way.
Andre’s disproportionate preoccupation with his watch is not only an indication of the narrowing of the focus of his mind, but also an emotional symbol of his search for order. He may realise that he needs the watch to identify what time in the day it is, something he is not able to do with confidence now without it. His wearing it may also represent a simple need to reclaim his own identity. As I suggested in the podcast, he may not feel properly dressed without it. A potent symbol.
David Mamet’s play Oleanna about the abuse of patriarchal power caused intense controversy and divided audiences when it was first produced in 1992. It is now being revived at the Theatre Royal Bath. How will we see the sensitive issues it raises differently nearly 30 years on in the light of the #MeToo movement? The acclaimed director of this new production, Lucy Bailey, joins me to explore this explosive work.
Note: this episode contains some strong language.
Kenneth Cranham and Claire Skinner c Simon Annand
Florian Zeller’s disturbing and moving play The Father presents a piercing portrait of a family living with dementia. Anyone who has witnessed the cruel effects of the disease will recognise painful truths in the play, and everyone will be unsettled by its inventive dramatic form. The Father premiered in Bath in 2014 before award-winning runs in London and on Broadway. It has now also been made into a feature film with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman due for UK release in January 2021. I’m delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the renowned playwright and screenwriter Sir Christopher Hampton, who translated the original play and co-wrote the film’s screenplay
Winsome Pinnock’s powerful new play Rockets and Blue Lights explores the continuing legacy of the slave trade by allowing the lost voices of the past to merge into our current re-examination of history and black identity. The play won the 2019 Alfred Fagon Award and was in preview at the Manchester Royal Exchange earlier in 2020 when the Covid pandemic cruelly closed our theatres. I’m especially honoured during Black History Month to talk with Winsome Pinnock about her wonderful play.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …