Sunday 4 December 2016

Theatre: The devastation of a disintegrating mind

* The Father, Gate Theatre, Dublin
* Helen & I, Civic Theatre Tallaght

Emer O'Kelly

Published 03/10/2016 | 02:30

Cathy Belton and Rebecca O’Mara in Helen and I. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Cathy Belton and Rebecca O’Mara in Helen and I. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

The Gate does not often get it right with new contemporary drama if truth be told. But this time around, it has scored a genuine, deserved hit with an immaculate, searing production of Florian Zeller's London and Broadway success The Father, in Christopher Hampton's translation.

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There's nothing light about the play: it is a serious, depressing, deeply moving piece of work which leaves an audience subdued, touched, even shaken.

The alarming, almost overwhelming rise in the number of people struck down with dementia of all kinds, particularly Alzheimer's, has meant that plays on the topic proliferate. But few mark the soul like Zeller's work. And for that we have to thank his uncanny ability to seem to get inside the head of the sufferer. The Father is written from the perspective of Andre, as he descends further and further into the depths, from the day when his self-sufficient bombast no longer works because his daughter Anne is planning to move from Paris to London, and she can no longer help him preserve the fiction that all is well.

We can't know what goes on in the mind of a dementia sufferer when the brain's chemistry goes increasingly out of kilter; but Zeller posits an entirely believable scenario. And as Andre's life as well as his tormented emotions go forwards and backwards through the spectrum of half-remembered reality, through truth confused with imaginings that turn into terrors, we live the creeping horror with him rather than being merely helpless observers of it.

And in Ethan McSweeny's production for the Gate nothing is left to chance: every nuance is driven home without the play's devastating subtlety ever being sacrificed. There is even the mechanical "crash" of confusion achieved through the LED light-frame (Rick Fisher's lighting is superb) which flickers into nightmare life between each scene.

And then there is Owen Roe. Playing beyond his years, Roe takes the role of the disintegrating, sophisticated Parisian engineer, and demands that we take his hands and join the downward spiral in which he finds himself until he has truly gone into Shakespeare's seventh age, "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything" weeping helplessly for his mother. And then he leaves us to reflect, almost surely never to forget.

The support cast in some ways is almost irrelevant; the last time I can remember a similar theatrical structure, with the central character so dominant, was Sebastian Barry's The Steward of Christendom. But Fiona Bell as Anne deserves every credit, as do Peter Gaynor, Charlotte McCurry, Simon O'Gorman and Sophie Robinson as the realities and fantasies who partner the descent.

* * * * * *

Helen and I is Meadbh McHugh's first full-length play. So it's a big career milestone; it's particularly commendable when a writer manages the achievement on a main stage, produced by a major company. And McHugh has achieved it all with this Druid production at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.

And while there are a few authorial gaps in the structure which might have been ironed out, but which as the play stands leave one trying to figure things out, Helen and I is an authentic, interesting, and believable take on sisterhood (the biological kind, not the marching one).

Lynn and Helen's elderly father is dying, and the sisters have come home to care for him in his last days. Helen is the capable older one, having had to rear her "baby" sister from an early age thanks to their mother's frequent absences in care for mental illness. Now Lynn is following in the pattern: hysterically bi-polar, maybe even schizophrenic, she is more of a hindrance than a help. And when her husband arrives with the medication she has left at home, things become tense as the sisters are faced with past reality. Lynn stole the caring and decent Tony from Helen in their youth, and old wounds are about to be opened. Add in Helen's superficially precocious but dangerously naive 15-year-old daughter, by an apparently unknown but certainly unnamed father, and the atmosphere turns toxic.

Quite simply, that is the play in total. But McHugh handles her characters and their dialogue with skill and excellent stagecraft, and they come across as real people, albeit in a slightly bizarre situation. But even the situation is plausible, and the play is never in danger of losing its grip.

Much credit for all of this goes, of course, to cast and director: Annabelle Comyn is in her usual fine form in her visualisation of the play, and she directs a pretty well faultless cast, with Cathy Belton as Helen, Rebecca O'Mara as Lynn, and Paul Hickey as Tony … a welcome return to the Irish stage for one of our successful exports. And Seana O'Hanlon's debut as the exuberant Evvy marks her down as a young actor to be watched.

Aedin Cosgrove is responsible for set and lighting for the production which is played in the round, with costumes by Doreen McKenna, and sound and music by Philip Stewart.

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