Review by Grace Swadling
‘The Father’, directed by Angela Witcher, written by Florian Zeller and translated from French by Christopher Hampton is a poignant exploration of the themes of connection, family and identity…and what the loss of those intrinsic parts of humanity does to one’s sense of self.
‘The Father’ plays out from the perspective of Andre, a man experiencing life in the grips of the illness of dementia. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare notes that in 2022, it was estimated that there were 401,300 Australians living with dementia. It is both heart-wrenching and refreshing to see this cruel disease played out from the perspective of Andre, giving voice to the experiences that so many people, who are often unable to voice their grief, loss and pain, go through.
The text is beautifully crafted, each scene unfolding through Andre’s journey of loss of lucidity and identity. We as the audience experience the world of the play in real time with Andre - double casting and repeated scenes shift Andre’s reality, confusing both the audience and Andre himself. Tony Nixon brought a great energy to the production as Andre, bringing the charm of Andre and his last remaining sense of authority and self, whilst simultaneously taking the audience through his arc into confusion and despair.
His daughter Anne, played by Janelle Bailey, is his carer and guardian but is confronted with the realities of caring for someone suffering from dementia. She is constantly berated and compared to her sister Elyse, who was Andre’s ‘favorite’, a fact he is more than happy to say in front of her. Whilst at times Bailey seemed not fully settled in the role of Anne, she nevertheless hit the emotional points necessary for the audience to see the struggle between wanting to care for her father despite his lack of gratitude or understanding of her sacrifices, and the need to continue to live her own life.
As the play progresses there is a growing sense of unease - Anne’s husband Pierre is a sinister presence in the flat, portrayed by both Regan Walker and Jesse Blachut. Regan was a strong addition to the cast and his Pierre was the definitive villain; empathetic and caring towards Anne and yet dismissive and unkind towards Andre. Blauchut’s character doubling as both the abusive Pierre and Andre’s friendly nurse was a poignant nod to the implications of elder abuse both in the play and within the Australian aged care industry. Jade Moon’s Laura had brilliant chemistry with Nixon; their scenes together showcased Andre’s charm which was even sadder when his dementia prevented him from remembering her, especially as Ophelia Novak portrayed versions of both Laura and Anne. This justified Andre’s confusion for us an audience but only solidifies his loosening grasp on reality for the other characters of the play.
There was a jarring disconnect between the French setting and character names, and the accents presented by the cast. This production would have benefited from a stronger commitment to one accent, as opposed to a mix of English and some Australian accents. Alongside this, some non naturalistic acting choices and clunky blocking affected the pace of the show. However, Angela Witcher’s direction guided the production so that Andre’s slow descent in the depths of dementia was never played for laughs, although comedic moments punctuated the piece as much needed reprieve.
Timothy James’ lighting design shifted as the moods of scenes changed, lighting changes that sometimes happened mid-scene which at times was a little confusing. However, mostly this worked, especially as the more confusion Andre experienced, the dimmer the lights seemed to get. The PIP Theatre is a wonderfully intimate space and was perfect for realizing the world of the play. Witcher doubled as set designer along with Ava Moschetti, whose homey set transitioned from Andre’s apartment, to Anne’s and then brilliantly and subtly disintegrated piece by piece as Andre’s reality disintegrated.
The final scene is a moving portrayal that conjures the words of Shakespeare’s famous ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech; “Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Watching someone lose their sense of the world is heart-breaking; in fact, this play made me want to call my parents immediately. Parents are supposed to be your safety net, your sense of authority in the world, and no child ever wants to see their parents reduced to helplessness.
The tragic reality of Andre’s condition is a touching exploration of loss of identity that causes an audience to consider their own mortality and how much one can hold on to themselves when their memory and mind abandon them. This production of 'The Father' urges us to consider the treatment of people experiencing dementia and showcases their experience as ultimately human. It reinforces that these are human beings who deserve compassion, respect and understanding. That is all we can ask of each other, and that is what this production asks you to think about, long after the curtain falls.