Director Damien Ryan shares his understanding of life and loss, and how Florian Zeller manages to capture it all in his play The Father.
‘We are all looking for something of extraordinary importance whose nature we have forgotten; I am writing the memoirs of a man who has lost his memory.’ – Eugène Ionesco, from his memoirs Present Past Past Present
Loss. The word could sum up the act of living. Loss, losing things, feeling lost – these are everywhere in Florian Zeller’s play. But what can we hang onto, what do we know for certain in this story?
André has lived in this room for over thirty years. He likes it. So, when his watch is stolen by an intruder, he drives her out by any means he can. A man who has lived this long has the right to know the time.
But his daughter is the real threat to his time in this place and she’s interested in more than his watch. She wants his throne, his apartment. Anne – André’s thankless child – or whoever she is pretending to be today, seeks to unseat him. Under her influence, the walls of his spacious Parisian apartment become porous, leaking belongings and admitting strangers at will. He faces persecution from every angle, even violence, but he is willing to fight back if it comes to it. Physically, if necessary. His other daughter Elise, a world away – his favourite – will come home soon and she will see things his way.
This is what André knows, for certain.
Zeller writes economically and mathematically, telling us how he revisited his labyrinthine structure over and over again to find and refine every piece of linguistic shadow-play: ghosts of phrases, entrances, rhythms, ideas, images – provocations to our understanding of the cause-and-effect process that we mistakenly think governs our lives. Knowing that audiences are conditioned from their earliest encounters with storytelling to hunt for narrative and sense, he makes words count for everything – the names we give to people and things, the promises we make, the memories we recount. But, in this room, we can rely on nothing we hear. We have to take each word at face value, even as it contradicts itself. A word or statement has no intrinsic value to Zeller and, in his world, words go missing all over the place.
Two words in particular are conspicuously missing from this script – they are the well-worn names we commonly use to describe what André might be experiencing. Every single audience member will inevitably use these words at some point in describing the story they have just seen. Importantly, Zeller refuses to use them on the stage. It is very deliberate of course. This story is as much about family and love as it is about ageing – how do families negotiate the life-long challenge of loving each other? And the play asks us why, at the end of that process, so many of us wind up living with strangers, and dying in their hands.
But Zeller also avoids those obvious words because he recognises that, while the labels and names we put on things serve our insatiable need to organise our environment and make sense of our days here on earth, in the end, they do nothing to describe the indescribable – the mysterious process of living and dying – the loneliness, the terror and the emptiness. No matter how much we might learn about why the human machine fails or breaks down, no matter the revelations that science and medicine, experiment and diagnosis might bring to us about an illness, or what names we may give it, the experience for a family going through it is entirely new and personal to them – utterly mysterious, unpredictable and bewildering. What are they left with when even their personal history is no longer theirs?
Like the writers who influenced him – Eugène Ionesco, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett – Zeller’s world is the same as ours when all the distractions are removed, an inexplicable void. If André is an unreliable narrator, it is because we all are. André’s problem is our problem and his condition is our fundamental state of being if we are willing to admit it. We have suspect and subjective memories, we alter our past, we tell lies in our present, even to ourselves, we reconstitute facts to preserve our own way of thinking, we justify and rationalize and look at life through our own frosted and distorted lens. No matter how much we try to hang onto, in the end, the room will be empty. Even the people we know best will be strangers. We can only react and protect ourselves. If the shadows are closing in, we turn on the lights and stay awake as long as we can.
The play in rehearsal feels like it is about the transferral of power as much as anything else. We’ve spoken a lot about authority and status and control. And the shifting dynamic of the situation on stage is one that most children and parents will go through eventually. There is no privileged perspective on what is right and wrong. And there is an endgame here: the house of André seems finished, like the ‘house’ in all tragedies. Anne does not appear to have any relation to the idea of children and as a result there is something completely disintegrating in this story – finishing in a circle, an old man who wants his mum. There’s no way forward, only around and around until we stop. We can only continually seek verification that we were ever here and that our time mattered.
And above all else, that’s what André wants – the time, his watch on his wrist – ‘for the journey’ – ‘if not, I wouldn’t know when I might have to…’.
See The Father from 2 November at Arts Centre Melbourne. The Father is a co-production with Sydney Theatre Company.