Theatre Review: STC’s The Father could not be in better hands than those of John Bell (Performances to 21st August)

Dementia is a truly terrifying condition, one that attacks the very sense of self. It affects not only the sufferer but also those closest to them in the most distressing of ways. In Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Father this distress is both portrayed and felt keenly, even when the play itself deliberately makes no direct mention of the term.

The audience is brought into the weakening mind of protagonist Andre (John Bell)- and we feel and observe as he slowly begins to lose his grip on reality, his relationships, and the world around him. The initial process is slow, at first it is small things- “I’ve lost my watch”, but his condition soon plummets rapidly as he begins not remember the name of things, where he is, or recognize even his own daughter.

The representation of the condition is very real in this play. As the audience see things happen through Andre’s perspective, we too become lost and confused at the events. The story crisscrosses and zigzags until we no longer know what is real- is his daughter Anne (Anita Hegh) going to London? Is she married or divorced? Is her husband abusive towards Andre? Set changes, cast changes- things are continuingly shifting. Perhaps the most startlingly moment of all though is a moment of seamless transition- Anne returns home with a chicken, which her husband takes to the kitchen to prepare as she takes a seat on the couch. Andre turns to her and asks when the chicken going to be ready and Anne replies “what chicken?”. In its way its immensely terrifying. The continuous “don’t you remember??” that are thrown at Andre as much for us as they are for him.

There is no one better to bring this representation and character to life then the real master of Australian theatre- John Bell. Through him Andre becomes so real, so very heartbreakingly real, but he also comes with a sense of charm, stubbornness and on occasion playfulness. Of course we’re unable to fully trust whether any of these traits are long-term characteristics of Andre, but they are who he is in the immediate moment. His interactions with the other actors on stage are fascinating, the other players in his life as he struggles to remember their roles. The authenticity of the character could not be in better hands than those of Bell.

This is a play, as Director Damien Ryan explains, where “words go missing all over the place”, the sense of narrative is broken and fraying, and you’re left struggling to piece everything together as desperately as Andre. It’s an achingly difficult journey. We witness Andre progress from “I don’t remember” (something we all too often say), to “I can’t remember”, and at last to “who exactly am i?”

Remember The Father, now playing at Wharf 1 Theatre until the 21st October. For more information and to book visit sydneytheatre.com.au

The reviewer attended the opening night performance on Thursday 24th August.

Photo credit (c) Philip Erbacher

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