This Father is hard to forget

Lim Kay Siu (right) as Andre and Tan Kheng Hua (left) as his daughter, Anne, deliver stellar performances.
Lim Kay Siu (right) as Andre and Tan Kheng Hua (left) as his daughter, Anne, deliver stellar performances.PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN




Victoria Theatre/Last Friday

From the first scene of The Father, the holes begin to show.

Gaps appear in conversations. Characters stumble mid-sentence, grasping for the right word and settling for vague gestures of "you know, the ...".

These lacunae are symptomatic of the dementia in Tracie Pang's truly heartrending adaptation of French playwright Florian Zeller's script, translated by Christopher Hampton.

Andre (Lim Kay Siu) is losing his mind, but does not realise - or refuses to acknowledge - this.

Cranky and paranoid, he drives away each carer brought in to look after him, to the despair of his daughter, Anne (Tan Kheng Hua), for whom it is growing more and more difficult to sustain a man who sometimes does not even know who she is.

She pins her hopes on new carer Laura (Frances Lee), who reminds her father of her absent sister.

However, her husband, Pierre (Emil Marwa), feels it would be best for everyone if Andre were placed in a nursing home.

The success of the play lies in how it employs theatrical devices to make the confusing, non-linear world of a dementia sufferer relatable to a person of sound mind.

Objects are there one moment, gone the next. It is morning; seconds later, it is night.

Your daughter hates you, then she loves you, then suddenly, she is gone and, in her place, is a stranger who answers to her name.

Eucien Chia's fish-eye set begins as a lushly appointed living room - its shelves filled with the mementos of a rich life. They empty in the course of the play when one is not looking - a stark visual metaphor of Andre's disintegrating mind and a testament to the deft skills of the stage managers.

Further unsettling the audience are disorienting bursts of strobe lighting by lighting designer James Tan and haunting wind chimes by sound designers Ctrl Fre@k.

A play on dementia risks growing tedious with repetition, but The Father packs so many layers into each reiteration or retold joke that it avoids this trap. The refrain of "if you'll remember" to a hapless Andre becomes nothing short of cruel.

Lim is stellar as the mercurial Andre. One moment, he is the stubborn patriarch, full of the bluster of a man utterly sure of himself. "I am so intelligent that sometimes, I surprise even myself," he declares. The next moment, he crumples into the terror of a child.

He is evenly matched by Tan as his long-suffering daughter, who weathers his tantrums, insults and references to her sister as "you know, the daughter I love".

Her love for him is painful to watch, as she confronts the terrible choice that all caregivers face: to choose between the life of the one you love and living your own.

The Father is terrifying. It shows how horribly easy it is to lose someone to dementia or to slip into it yourself.

It is a memento mori to memory - to never take for granted your mind while it remains with you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2018, with the headline 'This Father is hard to forget'. Subscribe