When I settled in to my balcony seat at the NCPA experimental theatre for the staging of The Father by Motley, I still had about 10 minutes to pass before the play began, so I decided to look it up and understand more about the playwright. I hadn’t picked up the pamphlets lying outside, so I opened the first result on google which was a play called ‘The Father’ by August Strindberg.
I read about Strindberg and a couple of lines about the play’s setting and the principal characters. It seemed to have something to do with a married couple, where the wife has the husband committed for allegedly going insane and it piqued my interest although it did seem to be very specifically located in a time and place that was not now and here. Once the play began, however, there was no wife on stage, only a man and his daughter, and no indication of the setting that I had read. After a point of course, I realized with surprise that this was not the play I had read about at all. Thie name of the playwright is Florian Zeller. This was only one of many surprises I was to encounter in my viewing.
The first indication that what we were seeing was not a ‘linear reality’, was when a conversation that takes place between the father and daughter appears, in the next scene, not to have taken place at all. But you soon catch up to the perspective from which we are watching events unfold, and realise you’re not even seeing ‘reality’ as you normally see it. Imagine, if you will, the actors switching character and interchanging roles for no good conceivable reason.
The father – Andre, essayed by the great Naseeruddin Shah, is a frail, headstrong man whose faculties are being chewed up by dementia and its attendant demons. He roams the span of his dwelling, asserting his authority, insisting that he can take care of himself, sneering at his daughter – Anne (Heeba Shah), momentarily turning on the charm for a potential care giver – Laura and constantly losing track of his watch. He pleads, throws tantrums and slips into nostalgic reveries for his absent daughter, Elise. He can never remember who Anne’s lover Pierre really is, with whom he has some terrible altercations. Each of these supplementary roles are essayed by more than one actor in the play, for reasons which will dawn on you, as you sit gasping and gawping in the audience.
Anne is a young woman trying to balance her relationships with the two men in her life, and she always shows a quiet grace without lapsing into helpless hysterics or fits of ill temper. Heeba Shah portrayed the role with sensitivity and kept Anne unsentimental, which was even better in getting the pathos across. Both the actors who played Pierre were fantastic, imbuing his character with confidence bordering on cockiness and a greyness of character that added delicious complexities to the breakdown of Andre’s mind, as viewed from the inside. Trishla Patel was perfectly cast in the role of the caregiver. The energy and ebullience she brought to the character was a perfect contrast to the many kinds of despair and negativity Andre was trying to constantly communicate.
The set on stage is constantly being stripped down to skeletal elements, and there are no props. Sound design by Saahil Vaid was masterful. Each action of the characters, like opening a door or pouring water was brilliantly supplemented by apposite sound effects, including effects that effectively create a sense of confusion and claustrophobia and what it’s like to be in Andre’s head. The few tunes played in between are a relief from the constant anxiety induced, and work well to set the mood and tone of the tender moments.
The light setup (by Arghya Lahiri) was also very successful in conveying the essential loneliness of the titular character, and contrasting the hope signified (sometimes falsely) by daytime scenes and the quiet despair of the night. It seems Arghya was never content to sit back to let the script or actors do the talking, and the effort bears fruit, because our attentions are always focused on the right place at the right time, with occasional spotlights highlighting the theatrical effect.
I wanted to write about this play because it hits home for me. My maternal grandmother, my only living grandparent at this point, is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and I have seen the blankness in her eyes. I live away from home, and the last time I visited, I took it upon myself to lecture my mother on her sometimes curt demeanour towards my grandmother. The point of view of a person whose faculties are dimming by the day, whose mind is becoming less and less reliable, evokes a shocking sympathy for the sufferer, of course. But the caregivers who are painfully and constantly aware of this fact are no less worthy of sympathy, and deserve our understanding. Equanimity and empathy are finite resources in us, and I realize that sometimes my mother has to reach into reserves of strength she doesn’t have in order to get past a situation. And ‘situations’ routinely crop up. There is a lot of drama in a household with a dementia patient; the patient is given to feeling shock, bewilderment, suspicion, self-pity and a host of other emotional states which they just as soon forget the next moment.
Even taking a step back to view this in the context of a long, full life, well-lived only puts in my heart the fear of being both caregiver and patient in the future to come. What’s really hard is understanding what to do with the love you know you feel for this person who brought you up, whom you love immensely and who has been there for you the whole way through. What to do with that love when you’re trying to act firm and even-tempered, and they, through all their snivelling helplessness are aware enough to fling accusations at you of wanting them to die, or some other terrible thing that is said to break you.
It is, no doubt, one of the strangest things, to have to undertake this enormous emotional exercise in the hope of not creating more drama. We realize that the love that we feel is because they are helpless and vulnerable with us. We realize that the love we feel, although it be increasingly misunderstood or unlearnt by the person we love, should take us through these difficult times.