The Father by Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton, directed by James MacDonald, with Kenneth Cranham and Amanda Drew, Theatre Royal, Brighton, 25 April, 7.45pm.
Where to start? Should I start with the Alzheimers? Or the with Kenneth Cranham's performance? Or with the meditation on memory? Maybe start with asking exactly what is it that Christopher Hampton sees in plays like Yasmin Reza's Art, or The God of Carnage, or this play? In the programme he says the plays and playwrights are 'wholly dissimilar', but they certainly share an ability to identify conflict in the familiar, in simple, everyday interactions, the stuff of television drama. Ok, say it, Soap Opera!
Is this posh soap?
Posh first. The production team is made up of some pretty heavy hitters. Everything, the set, the lighting, the music is subtle, clever, understated, beautiful. Though they all seem to have had opera in their past, there's nothing operatic, mannered or theatrically self-aware to suggest a presentation clashing with or overwhelming the content. No false notes anywhere.
The simple language, the repetitions, the scenes filled with dialogue that doesn't seem to move the action forward, that could describe television drama.
Taking those essential elements, Florian Zeller creates a play which is wholly sympathetic to it's characters, and utterly disturbing for those watching, compelled to observe, implicated by their mere presence.
Christopher Hampton, again, makes the point that Zeller is half his age, that the 'themes of the play weigh more heavily on me than they do on him.' What is it about this subject that so fascinated someone in their mid-thirties? What challenge did he see in a condition we all breezily dismiss as a disorder, an illness?
It's so easy, so simple, to be locked into a point of view, to think your perspective is the only one, especially if it's shared by the general populace, by everyone. To change that perspective, and to find a way of sharing that change, of making the difference clear, of letting people experience that change themselves, that's hard, if not almost impossible.
The point is very simple: for the person experiencing Alzheimers, this is their reality. For those outside of this experience, looking in, the narratives don't match. There is a disconnect. Their loved ones seem to be retreating into a different world, somewhere they can't be contacted.
And yet, if we could see it from the other's point of view, if their perspective becomes the one we share, where does that leave our usual way of seeing, our 'normality'?
Our memories are the basis of our narrative, they seem to amount to a continuum, a connectedness that makes sense. Could it be that we have a false confidence in this narrative, this personal story, that it's an illusion, that the fractured, disconnected, confused world view is actually the truth?
How did they do it, those who wrote and produced this play? How is the audience brought to a point where they, or at least I, start to question their own sanity? Their normality?
It starts, and ends, with the central role. None of this would work if we weren't charmed, seduced, taken by the hand and led into another world, another reality. Lear? Kenneth Cranham is like Puck, mischievous, often in his pyjamas, a small boy, at his most disobedient just before bedtime, full of fun and games, needing attention, craving security.
As his world disappears, item by item, he is left, the only pure being amongst illusion and lies, tragically alone, an orphan finally,
Why shouldn't Alzheimers be seen, not as an affiliation, but as a clarification, a stripping away of falseness, of a new focus, a vision of reality at last?
This production is a masterclass in simplicity and restraint, everyone and everything working together to serve a truly original and, ultimately, disturbing vision.
This is more than an intellectual exercise. The depiction rings true. Reversing a widely, and popularly, held assumption, showing the other side of the coin, at the very least, must go some way to helping to overcome the immense difficulties of those experiencing these changes, and those who have to support them through the ordeal.
Sympathy and genuine understanding can achieve the impossible.