THE DARKNESS OF DEMENTIA
Devastating. No other word for it. Without sentimentality, in Christopher Hampton’s powerfully simple translation, the French playwright Florian Zeller leads us into the unknowable, all-too threatening realm of dementia. In a mere 90 minutes James Macdonald’s production shatters your peace and challenges your humanity as violently as a good Lear. For we are not only observers but partakers of mental chaos: the retired engineer André is the victim without pretension or Pinteresque brutalities Zeller simply demonstrates how it might be to live from minute to minute unsure. Not being certain of your closest family, of where you are, when it is, what is happening, why the furniture seems not to be there, why people are treating you strangely…
It happens in one room – so we think, or he does, though it isn’t – and jerks in short scenes separated by dead blackouts and a dazzling flashing frame (Miriam Buether’s design, simple but disorienting). Bright virtuoso piano at first mocks with its precision the confusion of André’s mind: but speeds, stops, jangles, mingles with unidentifable sounds in the blackouts.
Kenneth Cranham, in a performance whose humanity, power and control should in justice win many awards, is André: Claire Skinner his daughter Anne. We see her husband Pierre, Laura the carer, another woman, another man; but they are not always the same person. Even to us. The “who are you? Why are you here?” is at first generally clear : we are in a naturalistic world where Claire (deploying a fragile, thwarted, worried competence) confronts her father’s absentmindeness, short-temper and confused paranoia about his carer. Cranham creates an André who had, sometimes still has, wit and charm and bluff sense: able to turn the tables with a reproving “Why are you talking to me as if I was retarded?” or to explain to the carer “My daughter has a tendency to repeat herself , it’s an age thing”.
So we laugh. But when he stands baffled in pyjamas, searches obsessively for his watch or is confronted – as are we – by a different face claiming to be his daughter, unease grows. Worse, an unidentified man (Jim Sturgeon, truly upsetting in his confident shaven roughness) sometimes replaces the son-in-law and taunts him repeatedly “How much longer do you intend to hang around getting on everyone’s tits? Ruining your daughter’s life?”. He is slapped. We do not know whether this really happens or is in his head, because by now we are in there too, and hardly breathing.
As every familiar piece of furniture vanishes and the room becomes a care home, André is a child again, not knowing his name, but afraid, wanting to be fetched home, comforted by a strange nurse. “I’m losing all my leaves…branches..in the wind”. It is one of those performances you believe too much, too painfully, so that even the curtain-call doesn’t help you regain control. But it is brilliant, and necessary,. Honour to the Tricycle for bringing it up from the Theatre Royal Bath.