Bearing witness to a journey in dementia

Felicity Caryer (Assistant Psychologist working with Older People) reviews The Father, at Delfont Macintosh Theatre – Wyndham’s Theatre.

Photo by Simon Annand

Florian Zeller, French novelist, playwright and creator of The Father tells us 'theatre can usefully - and immediately - hold a mirror up to its audience, allowing us to recognise and so to understand ourselves better'. The Father is a story fraught with confusion and exasperation, punctuated by moments of love and humour. Zeller invites us to experience the unravelling world of 80-year-old Andre as we bear witness to his, and his family’s journey with dementia.

Andre (Kenneth Cranham) is a charming, fiercely independent gentleman who we first meet as he searches, rather distractingly, for his watch whilst his daughter, Anne (Clare Skinner), attempts to discuss the future. By depicting a course of seemingly mundane daily activities, Zeller gradually entices us into a state of curious questioning which soon turns to bewilderment. Throughout the short, abrupt scenes interrupted by darkness, and the jarring track of a piano playing, more and more uncertainties arise. Who moved the table? Are we in Andre’s flat, or Anne’s? Where is his other daughter Elise? And who is Anne’s continually changing partner?

We as onlookers, are cornered into a state of misunderstanding, misperception and confusion. New, unfamiliar people appear, telling Andre that they know him. Andre wonderfully excuses these incidents, with the only logical justification – 'you must be losing your memory'. Andre’s charm and grace in juggling the ever changing world around him becomes increasingly challenging, building levels of frustration for both Andre and those around him.

Zeller uses the theme of time to juxtapose comfort and unease. Symbols of time, such as Andre’s watch and pyjamas, appear calming yet often betray Andre’s disorientation. Conversations about how best to support Andre are started but never finished, and significantly the word dementia remains unspoken throughout.

As time progresses, we observe the changing roles between Andre and Anne, and sense the often tense space between them. However, if we look close enough, we also see the very occasional glance, touch or fatherly embrace, demonstrating the influence and power of relationships, no matter how unfamiliar the world becomes.

Throughout The Father, Zeller shows us the good, bad and mundane moments of the family’s journey with dementia, exploring pertinent themes along the way. As an assistant psychologist working with people experiencing dementia, I found the play immersive, thought provoking, and unforgettable.

- The Father is booking until 21 November.

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