Playing with real illusions

Naseeruddin Shah’s play The Father which played at Ranga Shankara, brings us up close to the painful realities of our lives -- from a fullness to an inevitable emptiness

Published - May 09, 2019 06:02 pm IST

Old age creates convoluted illusions of various magnitudes, be it of fond nostalgia or traumatic memories. ‘The Father’, written by Florian Zeller, tells the tale of one such old man who, in his own celebration of fantasies, slowly loses track of time, place and person.

Naseeruddin Shah plays ‘Andre’, a forgetful old man, who profusely apologizes each time he mixes up identities, with a mumbling of words, evoking laughter in the viewer. This happens with his own daughter Anne, her ex-husband Pierre or his caretaker Laura. He forgets people and their appearances. Everyday of his life seems like a fresh new page waiting to be drawn over. What he draws over his pages are like the scribbles of a small child, kid, having no control over the dynamics of his environment.

Andre is taken care of by his daughter, Anne. Anne (played by Heeba Shah in this particular show; Rathna Pathak Shah also plays this role), keeps shifting between treating him as an adult and as a child. She relieves the stress of having to take care of a father -- who is at once losing his memory and is also adamant -- over a chat and drink with her boyfriend after her father goes to sleep each night. Heeba Shah’s excellent portrayal of an affectionate daughter who is afraid to let go of her father, makes each of us in the audience relate to a point in our lives where love for the family is foremost. Her ex-husband Pierre’s persona keeps threatening Andre in his day dreams. The past teases him as he keeps asking for ‘Elise’, his younger daughter, who is unfortunately no longer alive in the present ‘real’ world.

Naseeruddin Shah plays the part of troubled ageing father with all his vigour and strength, embodying the passage of time, dancing like a child with anger and spewing a mumble of gibberish words with exasperation. He forgets words, objects and their meaning till we begin to stammer in our own symphony of thoughts. The aesthetic of the entire play makes us dive into a world of losing our memories, forgetting the temporalities of time and re-imagining our past. We as an audience become a part of Andre’s view of the world, as he deteriorates into an illusion.

Shah has handled each department of this theatre production with utmost care and affection. The sound design with foley, sound effects, ambience and music come in at the right moments, none dominating the other in any way. An ambience created by a world of sounds is the most immersive experience as we seldom pay attention to the most common sounds that we are exposed to in our daily lives. The filling up of a glass of whisky during rainy weather brings us a warmth from within. The opening and the closing of a door alerts us about a new person in the house. The sound of the locking up of a cupboard shows us signs of anxiety and concern.

This minimal use of small scale props is very soothing to the audience as we are left to imagine most of the glasses, bags, utensils, umbrellas and furniture. There is a peculiar philosophy to the way the props are placed on the stage and the material and texture of these props. There are no physical barriers such as walls which block our vision during the performance, even when they occupy different rooms simultaneously.This no-wall room is very much like Andre’s mind which is just as naked and has nothing to hide from anyone as each day a wall keeps crumbling down, with fresh illusions appearing before him.

The play follows an arc from normality to semi-normality to complete immersion in illusion. We see Andre change his character from an adult to a completely disillusioned child towards the end. The set keeps on changing accordingly. The signs of comfort vanish making us feel hollow, unsafe and with Andre’s despair and pain deepening, there is a shocking change. The table is replaced by a hospital bed, we are thrown into the harshest storm as Andre bids goodbye to Anne.The permutations and combinations of changes in the set design is reminiscent of the abnormally dynamic mind of Andre, who has no idea of what is going to change in the next page of his life. The stove vanishes and so does the sink. Elements of space-time and objects that are used turn into metaphors in the the mise-en-scene of this theatre production.

The lighting design is well executed, it shows us daylight when the windows are pushed open and the blinds are slid up.

A good theatre production has the ability to open new doors in our mind and engage our sensibilities to the effect of having a new outlook of the world. We walk out of the experience as new people. “The Father” takes us on a riveting journey -- from filled homes to empty ones, from timeless memories to inevitable realisation.

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