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The Father

Raphael Solarsh

John Bell delivers a moving performance in this brilliantly constructed exploration of aging.
The Father

Image: The Father via MTC.

Still being a member of what most would call the younger generation, I don’t give a great deal of thought to advanced age. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to. Maybe I, like most people my age, find the loss of the youth we still have, something to be feared. Getting older is not something that I’m afraid of but being old is and even though the loss of basic capacity is not something I have any first-hand knowledge of, there was a dissociating quality to Florian Zeller’s play along with a deeply affecting performance by John  Bell, that laid the fear bare.

John Bell is Andre, an aging man whose most recent falling out with his carer has left his desperate daughter, Anne, at a loss as how to care for her father as he nears the threshold of independence. Bell is outstanding in the lead role, able to move Andre from justifiable frustration to prickly and defensive anger at the losses he cannot admit. Anne is forced to confront the unescapable question: can she abandon her father to an old age home. All the objective signs point to it being a good idea but the spectre of trauma and the illusive Elise hang heavily over Anne’s decision.

Zeller’s sharp scene changes and use of multiple actors for the same role made for a remarkable reconstruction of failing memory. Every moment is coded with the fraying edges of truth where outlying interpretations of the same event somehow coexist with seemingly equal likelihood of being true. What sets this apart from other methods to cast bright line distinctions into blurred greys is Zeller and director Damian Ryan’s ability to maintain a constantly moving subjectivity. Though the memories warp and change slightly, it never feels as if the audience is situated in Andre’s mind, though it is clearly his that is unravelling.

What results is a shared experience of dissociation and fear; a short-circuiting recollection of people at their wits end where each’s flawed perception and selfish desires are played out. Whether by design or not, The Father’s only real flaw is the dissonance between Bell and the supporting cast. Bell’s intensity and depth was not matched and that resulted in all characters but Andre not quite joining him in the realm of willingly suspended disbelief. If a deliberate choice to dim them as figures of Andre’s fading memory the decision did not have the desired result.

Overall The Father is an arresting and moving story, cunningly constructed and brilliantly staged. Though the memories that comprise the play are that of a fading mind, the emotions, the sobering reality and the apprehension so many feel at becoming old, linger powerfully.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5 

The Father

By Florian Zeller (translated by Christopher Hampton)
Director: Damian Ryan
Cast & Creatives
Cast: Faustina Agolley, John Bell AO, Marco Chiappi, Glen Hazeldine, Anita Hegh, Natasha Herbert
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, 2 November – 16 December

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Raphael Solarsh is writer from Melbourne whose work has appeared in The Guardian, on Writer’s Bloc and in a collection of short stories entitled Outliers: Stories of Searching. When not seeing shows, he writes fiction and blogs at raphaelsolarsh.com and tweets @RS_IndiLit.

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