John Bell delivers perhaps his finest performance as a man suffering dementia in Florian Zeller’s masterpiece The Father. By Peter Craven.

‘The Father’ at MTC and STC

John Bell in ‘The Father’
John Bell in ‘The Father’
Credit: Philip Erbacher

Florian Zeller’s The Father, his riveting play about an old man losing it, comes with the highest credentials. It’s translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, who makes the great plays of Paris old and new come alive – most famously Dangerous Liaisons, but everything from Molière in contemporary adaptation to Yasmina Reza. It has also burnt up the stage in London and New York, with Kenneth Cranham in the West End – whose performance was also broadcast on BBC Radio – dazzling all comers.

Well, this co-production of the Melbourne and Sydney Theatre Companies, directed by Damien Ryan, has one tremendous asset in the midst of various ancillary impoverishments, in the form of John Bell as the man we see in a state a bit like Shakespeare’s “mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes ... sans everything”. It is a performance of dazzling authority that shows an old man losing his faculties as a tragic predicament, and Bell brings to it all the fire and orneriness, all the bewilderment and savagery and wit and poignancy that a lifetime at the centre of dramatic art can give. This is a moving performance of extraordinary power and finesse with a cutthroat intensity. It is at least as fine as anything Bell has ever done and everyone should see it for the masterliness with which he conquers the representation of a condition that harrows the mind and stops the heart. He is magnificent in a way we scarcely dare to hope for in our theatre.

The playwright Zeller is still in his 30s and apparently came to the theatre late, by his own reckoning. The Father is so adept in its representation of definitionally bewildering subject matter as to look like some kind of masterpiece – so much so that we forgive the fact that it steals its title from one of the greater plays of Strindberg, bearing in mind that on a good day Strindberg (whose The Father belongs alongside The Dance of Death and Miss Julie) is one of the greater playwrights in the history of the world.

But Zeller’s The Father sweeps any thought of any other theatre aside by the naked power with which it takes a piteous medical condition – and how easy it is to think these things should be verboten for dramatists – and creates from it a world of terror. It has parallels with both classical tragedy and some of the more potent parables of the 20th century, the ones that stretch from Kafka to Camus, the absurdist ones that present bafflement, whether through metamorphosis or ignorance or a lack of conventional sentimentalism, as the very idiom in which the world in all its unintelligibility and cruelty must be met.

Well, Zeller’s father doesn’t wake up accused of an unintelligible crime, or become transformed into a bug, or be condemned to death because he doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, let alone find himself waiting for someone to come or for an unilluminated world to end.

He comes to life for us, on stage, full of an exuberant self-consciousness completely – or partly, which is worse – ignorant of what has happened. He doesn’t know he’s already met his carer. He doesn’t know the circumstances of his daughter’s relationship – who her husband is, or whether she’s going to London. He doesn’t know – and is on the very edge of a cliff of hurtling grief – that his other daughter, his favourite one as he keeps callously and egotistically declaring to her sister, is dead. He sometimes cannot remember what he did professionally and keeps imagining he was a tap dancer or a circus performer.

He’s demented – not in the old sense of mania, but in the grim modern one. He has lost the mastery of the codes of his own mind not because he is deranged but because his memory is going, going, gone, in a way that our own long-lived world is intimately familiar with, though Jaques’ great speech about the ages of man from As You Like It shows how intensely aware of it Shakespeare was too.

And it is amazing what verve and what colour, what dramatic tension and sparkle and fierceness and overwhelming poignancy Zeller gets from daring to dramatise this state, or, to put it differently, take it as his dramatic occasion.

It takes some time to get your head around the dramatic progression of the play, which doesn’t simply run backwards, though it sometimes seems to. In fact it mimes the extreme confusion in the man’s mind. There is a daughter – played by Anita Hegh – who tries to look after her father and has a partner (Marco Chiappi) who is less patient with him.

There is the carer she gets to come and help out (Faustina Agolley), but there are also two other characters (called in the program simply Man and Woman – Glenn Hazeldine and Natasha Herbert) who may be phantoms of the old man’s mind or allegorical emblems of his inability to recognise individual people.

Damien Ryan’s production has the central asset of John Bell’s performance. It also has a strong performance from Hegh, full of nervous attempts at certitude and warmth. It’s also true that Agolley – once known as “Fuzzy” in her music-hosting days on Channel Ten and on The Voice – has warmth and variety. She laughs and is nonplussed and improvises and pulls back as the carer girl who reminds the protagonist of his missing daughter.

But the rest of the cast are needlessly cold and drab and one note. In a world of frustration at someone’s incomprehension – as the pieces of his mind drift off to sea – this epical form of very antipodean flatness and coldness works not as a dynamised alienation device but as an inappropriate effect. With Chiappi and Herbert, both of whom are versatile and gifted actors with greater than average natural endowments, the effect is wasteful and impoverishing. In the case of Hazeldine, the acting is downright bad.

Excepting Agolley, none of the supporting cast – not even Hegh – are as good as they could be, and the three offenders – the male partner and the two walking shadows – should simply lift their game by allowing themselves to humanise and respond according to the emotional logic of their situation, rather than as cardboard cutouts – if that is the idea – in the old man’s mind.

But none of this lessens Bell’s towering performance even though it fails to rise and meet him. Speaking in his own mild, slightly fussy high Australian, Bell creates the vast and complex panorama of a mind on the skids because it can read none of the maps or know where they are. He barks, he brays, he blusters, he pulls back inside the carapace of the self that is vibrantly aware of how it feels even as it strides into the killing fields of loss.

Bell is most famous as the actor–manager of the Bell Shakespeare Company, but this is one of the finest things he has done. Indeed, it rivals, if it does not surpass, his superb performance as James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, one of the greatest roles of the modern theatre, 20-odd years ago.

This is a performance of pitiless vulnerability and the starkest intensity. Bell has forged his career in slavish dedication as a classical actor, which has sometimes led him into strange waters. He was temperamentally unsuited to Coriolanus and Falstaff – why not Shallow? – and neither of the two of his three Lears I saw realised his potential, though the crazy cat one with Barrie Kosky was better than the stuffed owl one with Marion Potts. His Hamlet 45 years ago, outdistancing most in reputation, was spacious and melodious in soliloquy, meditative and intellectually rapt but coarsely camp in the comedy. Though paradoxically, Bell could be good in comedy – he was a very funny Terry-Thomas-style Malvolio. One of the weird things about his classical assiduousness is that it seems somehow to have made him into an extraordinary naturalistic actor, capable of unusual observation and a vaulting ability to project feeling in all its frailty, anger in all its maledictions and modulation.

The Father is one of the greatest things he has ever done, overpowering in its emotional reality and formal grace and desolating fury.

Because of Bell, it hardly matters that most of the rest of the cast run around like the familiar theatre mice of mediocrity. But it matters a bit. I did wish as I was watching Bell’s superlative performance that he had played Roy Cohn in Gary Abrahams’ production of Angels in America with Helen Morse. But how I wished that an actor’s director such as Abrahams had been there to help the rest of this cast.


Arts Diary

CIRCUS Please Hold

National Institute of Circus Arts, Melbourne, until December 9

THEATRE Barbara and the Camp Dogs

Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until December 24

MUSIC Australian Music Price 2017 Longlist Announce Party

The National Hotel, Melbourne, December 5

DANCE New Breed

Carriageworks, Sydney, until December 9

EXHIBITION Dinosaur Discovery: Lost Creatures of the Cretaceous

Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre, until January 28

CLASSICAL Norwood Symphony Orchestra: Classics Showcase

Brighton Concert Hall, Adelaide, December 3

Norwood Town Hall, Adelaide, December 9

VISUAL ART Noel McKenna Landscape – Mapped

QAGOMA, Brisbane, until April 2


Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Melbourne, until February 4

Last chance

VISUAL ART Victorian Watercolours

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until December 3

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 1, 2017 as "Bell towers".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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