Direction : Naseeruddin Shah
Writer : Florian Zeller
Cast : Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Heeba Shah, Sayan Mukherjee, Saahil Vaid, Bhavna Pani, Aahana Kumra, Neeraj Kabi, Faisal Rashid, Trishla Patel, Prerna Chawla and Jaya Virrley

THE FATHER Play Review

Deepa Punjani

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Few things are more heartbreaking than watching a near one fade away mentally as their neurons succumb to conditions like Alzheimer and Dementia. This, in essence is the story of French writer Florian Zeller's play THE FATHER (2012). Yet what makes THE FATHER sublime is that Zeller is not just interested in the mental condition of his protagonist per se. He is rather keen to dwell on the twilight zone between the present and the past, and between memory and the ravages of time, thus making us re-think our own perceived notions of what we deem as truth or reality. He is also reminding us of the thin line in family ties between kindness and cruelty.

The play, which won the Moliere award for best play, among other awards, has been translated into English by Christopher Hampton. Andre, the central character, is also Everyman, and Zeller showing him for what he is, and inspite of his unstable and precarious condition, has only humanised him. There is a lot of undercurrent here that a mature actor can explore, so it is no wonder that one of our very best should have picked him.

In Motley's production of the play, led by Naseeruddin Shah, we get glimpses of the inner storms that flash through Andre's mind as he tries to cope with his situation. At the receiving end is his daughter Anne who is doing her best but failing little by little everyday even as she tries hard to have her father near her. As Shah slowly but surely warms into his Andre, we are left to grapple with the dichotomy of love and hate that Andre evokes, not least in his own daughter, who suffers the most because she is the closest to him.

There is a double cast for all the other characters, save for Andre's. Shah's daughter Heeba played Anne in the show I saw at the NCPA. She is very good indeed. With Shah we have grown to be familiar with the particular traits that define him as much as they define his troupe. There is always for instance, great emphasis on speech and diction, but in a play like this, one is seeking more than the immaculate precision of the spoken word. There is a moment when Andre belies a sense of utter helplessness. It is fleeting and Shah gets us there, thinking this is just so awfully sad. We know this man deserved better. We have had a sense of his intellect. Then the moment passes.

Heeba, on the other hand, just slides into the skin of her character. She is every bit the outwardly tough yet inwardly fragile woman who wants to do the best by her father but is overwhelmed by the circumstances she finds herself in. Even as she tries to balance her life as a caregiver to her father and being a wife to her husband Pierre (Faisal Rashid), things come falling apart. It is in Andre's moment of Pierre's real or imagined slur against him that we know the face of abuse, and moreover, of how we too can easily succumb to it. The family is both a lovely and an ugly place, and Zeller finely underscores this unpalatable truth in the play. We are free to even like or dislike Andre but we have to be aware of that, is what Zeller is telling us, as much as he allows Anne to play out her dangerous thoughts bordering on murder. And yet, Anne only means to be kind.

Andre's mindscape is tormented by the thought of his second daughter Elise who never visits him. Similarly his mind is clouded by the visions of a man and a woman (Sahil Vaid and Bhavna Pani) whom he perceives as Anne and Pierre, and who double as the male and the female nurses towards the end. Laura, the nurse at home, is played by Trishla Patel. All these characters together appear to threaten Andre at some point as he is consumed by the fog in his mind. In their respective portrayals they convey Andre's increasing fragility as they try to help him but can perhaps never be as empathetic and feeling as Anne has been.

At the NCPA Experimental theatre, the action takes place in the middle of a quadrangle with the audience framed around it. The set by Arghya Lahiri and Ratna Pathak Shah, along with the sound design by Salil Vaid, references the quality of time and space that guide us, but which in Andre's mind have become increasingly chaotic and shifting.

THE FATHER is an intriguing and a cathartic play. It has been described as a tragi-comedy, but in Motley's version, the humour largely escapes us. It wears a more serious demeanour, and shows us our fragile, human selves. It tells us that we can have flashing insights and be humdrum; that we can be lucid and incoherent. We are strong but also weak. We can love but we can just as well torment. We can be together but we can be very lonely too. Once we were sure, but now look, our mind only plays tricks! In venturing into the alleys of the mind, THE FATHER stirringly touches upon the great mystery of that singular human organ we call the brain.

Deepa Punjani is the editor of this website.

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