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What Price Memories

Tuesday, September 19, 2017
By Deepa Gahlot

Naseeruddin Shah’s experiment of performing a play continuously for a month at the same venue (with small breaks in between) means that the cast gets to live with the work for a while and can grow with it.

The play he chose, The Father, Florian Zeller’s French original translated into English by Christopher Hampton, is one that must be the hardest him; challenging, no doubt, but also physically and mentally draining.

He plays Andre, an elderly man, who is suffering from senile dementia. The way the play is structured and designed, there is a constant juxtaposition of real and imaginary, as Andre’s mind unravels.  His harried daughter Anna (Ratna Pathak Shah—outstanding) and her partner Pierre (Neeraj Kabi) do their best to look after the obdurate old man, but a lot of the time, faces, incidents and memories get jumbled in his head, so neither he nor the audience is quite sure of what is really going on.

Alzheimer’s disease is a huge tragedy, for what makes a person human than memory and a sum of his (or her) social and emotional history. It is every more difficult for the carer, because a lot of the time the patient does not even recognize a loved one, or creates a fictional scenario based on the few moments of lucidity or scraps of memory. Andre, for instance, does not remember whether Anne is divorced, or who is the strange man in the flat, claiming to be her husband.

The set, light and sound design (the actors mime the props) enhance the feeling of unreality and mounting dread about what will happen to Andre—like the time he demands to know where the dining table is, and Anne has to patiently explain that there wasn’t one in her flat. Andre also keeps misplacing his watch, and gets agitated when he can’t find it, accusing the help of stealing it. The watch becomes a symbol of everything that is slipping from his grasp.

There can be no satisfactory ending for a story like this; the playwright can still find a positive point to bring it to a close, but it just never gets better; families just have to find a way to carry on living without turning the care of a dementia patient into a burden of guilt and self-destruction, which is easier said than done.

One cannot imagine another actor playing this part as brilliantly as Shah does—his performance is flawless and as a director he has brought out the best in his cast and crew.

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