Mapping Fatherland

Our editor Jon Sutton is hugely impressed by a new play at Manchester International Festival.

Where is Fatherland? It's Stockport, it's Kidderminster, it's Bewdley... 'just a satellite town', 'on the periphery', a once proud working place which now exists 'for no reason'. How do we map Fatherland? We find the small words, the topography of 'Being a Dad', and we make something big out of them.

Although the play is a wider social commentary too (nationalism, Brexit), there's plenty for psychologists in this poignant play from co-writers Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Karl Hyde. Aside from the psychogeography of parenthood, the very approach to pulling the piece together is psychological. Early on the writers, through the characters playing them, state their aim of making 'something big out of many little fragments... partly inspired by a Salvador Dali painting 'Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln.'

The fragments are real snippets of interviews with men, about their fathers and about them as fathers. A lot of what they say is frustratingly predictable... Men are attracted by violence, yet simultaneously repulsed by it (characters physically move in or withdraw in response to revelations about being 'a bit handy', stonings and slaughterhouses). Dads sit there, expecting the world to go on around them, absorbed in their paper. Dads only come alive between 3 and 4:45 on a Saturday afternoon, tossing their children in the air at football matches in a fleeting moment that will last in their child's mind forever.

The play also addresses how our views of our fathers change as we age. Just as you 'see the physical geography [of our hometown] differently as you grow older', so we also 'come to have some sort of acceptance of who people are'. 'The older I get the more I like the place', says Stephens' character about Stockport (his Dad?)...'It's like I forgive it.'

The play ends with forgiveness too. But surely each successive generation has to hope for more than forgiveness, has to believe that there is no need for men to hand on misery after misery, deepening like a coastal shelf? Certainly all the Dads I know bandy about the word 'love' with an ease their children now find embarrassing, and when I spoke to Stephens and Hyde later I was relieved to hear they are the same.

Maybe we're still some way off mapping the strange thicket of Fatherland though. Stephens told me that it had taken a female friend to point out that, for a play about men's feelings, there is very little engagement with actual emotions. 'They tell stories instead', he admitted, and when one character says of their childhood home 'I wouldn't go upstairs... it was too dark', they could be talking about the mind. That's one of many ways the simple staging is so incredibly effective... it's all doors and ladders, opening and stretching but never quite revealing all they should. Coats are important... if you're a bare minimum kinda guy looking to leave a lasting impression on your offspring, I would strongly recommend getting a decent coat and encouraging your kid to fall asleep just as Match of the Day comes on.

Of all the Dads, it's actually Karl Hyde's own who comes out of it best. The 'This is my son' flying routine is perfect. Graham Hyde recalls times when his 'whole body tingled... it still happens now when I see him on stage [with Underworld]'. Hyde told me that the play had been a continuing psychological journey for him, and that even last week there had been a line about his Dad which had stopped him in his tracks.

We have to hope that these brave explorers of Fatherland, and others like them, forge ahead on those tracks. Hyde has said that he feels the subject of fatherhood is under explored, and perhaps it's the same within psychology (although Michael Lamb, Charlie Lewis et al may beg to differ). Until scientists (psychologists?) can develop the Holy Grail of this play, a Father 'thought translator' (inspired, improbably, by the monkey one in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs), we're going to have to try actually talking to our kids. Our country doesn't have to be remote, foreign... Dads in the play 'built roads, built bridges' in the real world, and we can do the same in Fatherland.

- Fatherland is on until 22 July at the Royal Exchange Theatre, before further performances in London at the Lyric Hammersmith as part of LIFT 2018.

See also Karl Hyde's 'Manchester Street Poem' on homelessness at Unfear on Oldham Street.

Original music from the show, by Karl Hyde and Matthew Herbert, is also available.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber