Translated from the French by Christopher Hampton
With a big screen adaptation forthcoming later in 2020/early 2021 I thought I’d revisit French novelist and playwright, Florian Zeller’s incredible play Le Père, (or in English, The Father). Zeller makes bold, creative decisions with this play which explores the Dementia experience of an older Frenchman named André. André becomes the lens through which we see the world. The characters, dialogue, time frame and set of the play are all deliberately ambiguous as Zeller attempts to capture the confusion of André’s experience on stage.
The play itself is set in what André takes to be his Parisian apartment, although it is also at times his daughter’s apartment. Zeller’s stage instructions convey the confused nature of this space.
“Simultaneously the same room and a different room. Some furniture has disappeared: as the scenes proceed, the set sheds certain element, until it becomes an empty, neutral space.”
Scenes repeat with slight variations, additions and subtractions to the dialogue. This makes it incredibly difficult to follow any linear time pattern through the play. The audience is catapulted into André’s world where time means very little anymore. The past is the present is the past and memories repeatedly come back to haunt him, whilst other details, like the death of his younger daughter, seem to be permanently misplaced. Most worryingly of all Zeller employs different actors to play André’s daughter and her partner so when he does not recognise Anne or Pierre, the audience understands his confusion because we do not recognise them either. These people might be speaking Anne and Pierre’s lines, but they no longer look anything like them.
The Father is a simple and yet hugely ambitious attempt at embodying the Dementia experience in a piece of art and allowing it to be accessible to the audience members as they watch the play. It incites a feeling of confusion, disorientation and frustration not unlike Dementia itself. However, it is also shot through with moments of heartfelt emotion and beautiful, poignant language such as the section towards the end of the play, when André, greatly diminished by his illness and the confusing experiences he’s been through, likens himself to an Autumnal tree.
“I feel as if… I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves, one after another.”
I’m so looking forward to seeing Florian Zeller’s own film adaptation of The Father later in the year and am confident that the all star cast including Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman and Rufus Sewell will do justice to this powerful play.
The Father was published by Faber and Faber in 2015.