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Image: Manuel Harlan

The mystery of ‘Dad’ – Fatherland at Lyric Hammersmith

13 June 2018 Suzanne Frost

This Sunday is Father’s Day, so what could be more timely than investigating the role our dads played in our life. This is what Frantic Assembly’s show Fatherland, part of this year’s LIFT festival, attempts to do. Upon entering the auditorium you are immersed in an oddly eerie, half sung, almost choral like soundscape asking the really big questions: “Did your friends ever meet your dad? What did they think of him? Did your dad ever take you to work? Did your dad ever discipline you? Did you follow his advice? Did your dad ever talk about sex with you? Did your dad ever talk about love with you?”

The cast of Fatherland at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Frantic Assembly is a devising and movement focused theatre company, founded by Scott Graham, he of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time-fame. Together with composer Karl Hyde and writer Simon Stephens, the three Tony and Olivier decorated men went back to their respective hometowns to conduct interviews with ordinary men about their relationships with their fathers, and about becoming fathers themselves. 
 
A ‘crisis of masculinity’ is propagated across the media these days, with men confused about their role in modern society, in the work place and the family. With most theatre audiences predominantly female, women in arms about equality everywhere, #MeToo and #TimesUp across social media, it is actually striking, and satisfying in a way, to see this all-male company confidently taking the stage and exploring nothing but their own issues for once, without much mention of the women in their lives. It is equally striking however, how very little these men have to say about their fathers. With all the big and small questions asked, there remains over the entire production one huge gigantic vacuum, an unanswered enigma of who the hell are our dads and why do we know so little about them?

The cast of Fatherland at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo by Tristram Kenton
 
Fatherland is a verbatim piece with actors speaking the lines recorded in the original interviews. It is a method that is relentlessly truthful but the mutterings and stutterings, the half-finished sentences drifting off about how dad was “alright”, a “lad” and played football when he wasn’t in the pub, is exasperating. They talk about their father’s jobs, unable to find descriptive words about what kind of person he was. “He was a United fan” is not a valid description of a human being.

One talks about never having met his father who walked out on the girl he impregnated, but without even an urge to investigate, to find out who the man was. There is an odd passivity, an acceptance that dads will just be remote presences floating in and out of our lives as they please, without any accountability to bring up, to teach, to educate, to foster, to connect. “Did your dad ever tell you he loved you?”, one man gets asked. “No, love is not a word we use.” Now, it is not really big news that men are bad at talking about feelings, but the perpetuating effect down the generations is heart breaking. Becoming fathers themselves later in life one of the men’s aggressive idea of fatherhood is to “execute anyone who’d touch his daughter.”
 
Neil McCaul (centre), in Fatherland. Photo: Tristram Kenton

They talk about their fathers dying and how it “really fucked up Christmas.” Asked about their feelings when they found out they were becoming fathers themselves, the evasive answers start again: “I was in the boozer”, “I was at work”. An elderly character, Graham, describes how he had to tone down his reaction in front of his Royal Navy colleagues, when all he wanted was to jump and shout. One of the most poetic and uplifting moments comes when Graham, now fixed with a harness, starts flying across the stage shouting out his true feelings of joy and pride: “This. Is. My. Son.”  

The cast of Fatherland at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo by Tristram Kenton

In another key scene, Mel, a fireman, sings about being called to an incident and finding a man who’d been dead for 6 weeks. He was only discovered because his sons were sent to visit their estranged Dad for once on Christmas Eve. The men’s voices, powerful, hymn-like, with an almost religious devotion, are the most touching aspects of Fatherland. Joined by even more men emerging from the auditorium, they build up a huge chorus of a single almost accusatory phrase: “There’s a lot I’d like to know.” Just one gigantic question mark. This pretty much sums up the evening perfectly.

The cast of Fatherland at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Ending with a shimmer of hope for future generation, Craig, a young father who stopped taking drugs when his daughter was born -  because the exhilarating feeling of holding his child, unlike drugs, didn’t wear off - shares an intimate moment with his little girl, an actual meaningful conversation full of respect, a lesson for life that lets us, the audience, witness an anecdote of real fatherhood in action.
 
Fatherland is at Lyric Hammersmith until 23 June. Tickets are £10 ‐ £42.
 
 
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