By Akanksha Raja
(780 words, five-minute read)
Pangdemonium’s first play of 2018, The Father, revolves around the 70-year-old titular character, André (Lim Kay Siu), and the harrowing effects of his increasingly uncontrollable symptoms of dementia on daughter Anne (Tan Kheng Hua), her partner Pierre (Emil Marwa), and Laura (Frances Lee), one of a series of live-in nurses tasked to look after him. Pangdemonium’s production is a Singaporean re-contextualisation of the play based on Christopher Hampton’s English translation of La Pére by acclaimed and award-winning French writer Florian Zeller.
While this is a play about dementia, the word “dementia” is not mentioned at all. In fact, the audience is never explicitly told what is going on. We “experience” dementia as it happens through André’s eyes: erratic chronology, paranoid delusions of Pierre abusing him, characters shape-shifting into others. Through a mélange of apparently inconsistent dialogue, mysteriously vanishing props, and multiple repeated scenes, the play aims to dislocate the audience from its voyeuristic and omniscient third-party view of a troubled family, and instead subjects the viewer to a visceral and immediate first-person experience of symptoms alluding to dementia.
Eucien Chia’s elegant set foregrounds a handsomely furnished flat against towering shelves that are filled with a lifetime’s memorabilia – trophies, photographs, plaques – which slowly begin to disappear, scene after scene. It’s a beautiful representation of memories slipping away, almost unnoticed, and remains delicately subtle until André blatantly points it out to the audience. Similarly, some of the play’s stylistic strategies come off a little ostentatious. The blinding strobe lights by designer James Tan that showily bookend several scenes, as well as the jarring distortion of Ctrl Fre@k’s electronic music, almost makes one feel obliged to respond with the attendant disorientation and unease. It’s near impossible to accurately simulate or transpose the experience of dementia for individuals who have never been through it, so these devices have the unfortunate consequence of making the production seem a little more concerned with playing with the provocative quality of its special effects.
This makes it unclear if our experience is supposed to mirror André’s, because it feels more like an ersatz representation of it, making our empathy for him feel disingenuous, a result of tricks of the eye rather than a heartfelt, human understanding of his circumstances. Our distance from him is widened by the fact that we are privy to conversations about him that he isn’t. In one scene, for instance, we encounter Anne lamenting to us about how childlike her father looked asleep and how she was tempted to kill him: suddenly we are compelled to pivot out of our role of the “helpless and unwell” dementia patient to empathise with her pain as a caregiver. Consequently, by the end of the play, rather than feeling closer to André for having shared “similar” lived experiences, we remain alienated from him, or at least more ambivalent towards him.
It’s the lighthearted effervescence of Lim Kay Siu’s André that drives the play despite its stylistic inconsistencies, and makes the protagonist memorable and lovable. There’s a levity and restraint in his portrayal that balances the character’s impetuousness and stridency: his confusion, anger and sorrow, though deeply felt, are never overly self-indulgent; and the pain of his final monologue closes the play with a wistful, soft landing, more impressively than the emphatic derangement and chaos conveyed by the other aspects of the production.
The supporting characters convey a little less nuance, which might be the result of the text being most interested in its protagonist. I enjoyed the sporadic moments when the iciness of Anne’s constant state of tension melts to reveal her underlying affection for her father, and Tan makes use of these opportunities to bring a softness to a character that otherwise seems more exasperated with the burden of caregiving than actually caring. Emil Marwa had fewer opportunities to flesh out his character, as all of Pierre’s scenes are defined by his bloody-minded disdain for André, and the script offers no shades to his antagonism. This is compounded in the scenes of André’s hallucinatory episodes, when Pierre’s role is further flattened to the two-dimensionality of a Disney villain.
Over the past eight years, Pangdemonium has carved out a niche for itself, staging thoughtful and intense family dramas that shine a light on marginalised or overlooked communities. They’ve done this very successfully before, such as with 2013’s Next to Normal, touching on mental illness, and 2016’s Falling, on autism. With The Father, Pangdemonium continues to stay committed to this tradition. While its heavy-handed effects obscure the heart of the play, and of its characters, it is a brave attempt to share a heartrending story, in a “show, not tell” style, about alienation, loss and the joy and strain of family love.
The Father by Pangdemonium runs at the Victoria Theatre from 2 – 18 March 2018. This review is based on the performance on 4 March, 3pm.