Fathers and Sons
by Don Hannah
Notable Acts Theatre Festival
It can be pretty exciting to watch a theatre company take on the challenge of a really difficult script -- one you might read and think, "come on, nobody could do that." I suspect, though I haven't read it, that Fathers and Sons is rather that kind of script, and indeed it was exciting to watch Ilkay Silk and the Notable Acts Festival people make what I think probably looked, on the page, rather like a poetic-prose bildungsroman into an evening of theatre. The main challenge Don Hannah's script poses -- one met brilliantly by Silk and her company -- is that really it's not so much a play as a set of two coordinated and sometimes interlocking monologues, or perhaps a prose fiction piece with some dialogue, and that it's more like a memoir than a story.
What a theatre company needs to do with such a script is easily said: they need, in the absence of action, plot, conflict or startling or new ideas, to craft an evening in the theatre that keeps us interested and leaves us satisfied, and in this production -- in spite of the odds stacked against it -- the company succeeded.
They did so by capitalizing on the scripts' and the company's strengths. One is that the central characters really are pretty engaging, even when simply reading longish patches of exposition. Hannah, as has been remarked elsewhere, has a novelist's instinct for character, and for the specific details that reveal and enact it. Another is that Ryan Griffith and Robbie O'Neill brought some impressive skills to the production.
Griffith was a convincing, focused, Allen, moving easily and confidently from the infant babbling at the beginning, through an angst-ridden adolescent undergoing the discovery of sex and adult imperfection, to a reflective adult, dealing with his own child and his declining father. O'Neill was even more convincing as the wayward, self-deceiving but fundamentally honest father, Hilt, dealing impatiently -- and sometimes patiently -- with the son growing out of his comprehension. And best of all were the moments -- too few, I thought, but again that may be a problem with the script -- where Silk's direction moved them away from their stations at lecterns on either side of the stage, and toward real interaction. Perhaps it was important that they be stationed at the lecterns, telling us about their lives, so that when they moved away from them the moments were that much more important. And certainly without the lectern structure we might never have had the touching moment when Allen picks up a stool and takes it over to the right-hand lectern, which has been the location of the father all evening, telegraphing what we've been seeing happening, as he takes up the position of father. And perhaps without the static frame of the lecterns and the reading we might never have felt the power of the reversal when, at the end, Allen, on his back, balances his father on his feet, just as he'd been balanced as an infant -- and when, at the final blackout, Hilt raises his arms in flight, supported by his son.
A problem which I didn't think was solved, however, was the presence of Helena (Katherine Riding) at the back of the stage providing incidental music with a violin. The music was fine, and solidly performed, but Helena's position with respect to the rest of the production was, it seemed to me, anomalous: for the first two-thirds of the play she was lit, and played the fiddle, only between episodes -- but at the moment when Allen tells us Helen came into his life, she put down her fiddle, came forward, and became a character in the play, for one scene. After that it was back to position one. Because there was so relatively little dramatized incident in the play, and because the convention of Helen's being not part of the action was so firmly established, it seemed a real bombshell when she came forward and jumped into the action . . . and yet in terms of the play it simply wasn't all that important; certainly I could see no reason why Helen should be introduced into the two-person script in preference, say, to Allen's mother.
Finally, at the end of the production, I was left wondering why it was worth all our effort -- the brilliant blocking and direction, the powerful and skillful acting, the tight (and complex) lighting cues, the audience engagement in the Black Box -- to have encountered yet another writer's account of how he came to be what he was and learned to face and understand himself only through facing and understanding his father, and becoming a father himself. So many male writers have told us the story of how they grew up and became writers that the form even has a name -- bildungsroman -- and we've all read at least a few of them. Yes, it's true that the process is, in Hannah's prose, finely observed, nicely detailed, and moving. But, well, it's hardly news, or productive of new insight into our human condition, or particularly dramatic, to discover that fathers get alienated from sons, that sons develop contempt for their fathers and need to learn about their lives and come to understand how they got to be the way they are in order to accept them, that fathers die, that sons become fathers.
For me, I guess, the jury's still out. Fathers and Sons was an engrossing evening of theatre, but I'm not certain it's a play yet.