Saturday, 15 July 2017

Fatherland – MIF, at Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 12/07/17]

I can’t remember the last time I went to the theatre with my expectations so “managed”. Away from the largely positive reviews in the press, there has been *a lot* of eye-rolling about Fatherland – the verbatim, “physical theatre” “musical” made by Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Karl Hyde – amongst Manchester’s theatre community. And, for much of the show, it’s actually quite difficult to see why. Or at least, if you go in having been primed to expect an absolute catastrophe, you spend a good long while wondering why everyone’s so grumpy. It’s fine!

I mean, sure, there is the fact that – with its narrative of Stockport, Corby and Bewdley’s most famous sons returning to where they grew up for an afternoon or so – it weakly recalls Didier Eribon’s extraordinary memoir Returning to Reims, which Thomas Ostermeier has brought to such vivid theatrical life at HOME. That comparison throws much light on the problems here. Where Eribon has defined a clear set of things to reflect on, Fatherland is far, far too diffuse.

The piece opens nicely enough. We pretty much know what to expect, verbally, visually and even sonically. We’ve seen verbatim theatre before, we’ve seen Frantic Assembly before, we’ve heard Underworld. And it’s exactly that. On a large rusty grille floor, which revolves. The verbatim scenes have been intercut a bit, so there are some bits where people who (presumably) never met seem to give each other looks. And some of it is given physical presentation, be it largely literal (a ladder is extricated from the iron grille floor to illustrate a bit about being a fireman) or largely metaphorical (some post-Hofesh shuffly dancing).

The subject is interesting. Moving even. Sons talk about their dads. Dads talk about their sons (or daughters). Having got a dad of my own, I could relate to this concept. It works partly just because when the verbatimeers ask questions of their interviewees, you can answer them yourself; it’s not like one of those shows where they interview people with a special interest; like terrorism or racism. Of course, this is also why it’s not super-exciting. They do interview someone who never met their dad too, though. Although, perhaps understandably, he doesn’t really have much to say on the subject to three perfect strangers, so that’s a bit of a blind alley.

There’s also the decision to have Stephens, Graham and Hyde played by actors on stage. A lot of people have grumbled about this. And before I’d seen it, I couldn’t really understand why. I mean, it might be a bit clumsy, but at least it’s honest, right? When verbatim theatre hides its constructedness, its interviewiness, everyone grumbles about that too. So – I thought – there’s a certain level of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

However, by the end of Fatherland you do see the problem: that, by choosing to honour – nay, foreground – the (really quite sharp) objections of one of their interviewees, the makers inadvertently turn the piece into a narrative about themselves. Now, again, this *could* be quite interesting. Working-class guilt at successfully-executed class-treachery is, after all, half the subject of Eribon’s perceptive, incisive, searching 245 page memoir. The problem on that score here is, I suspect, a lack of time. And perhaps a lack of substantial enough reflection. And perhaps of failing to see the wood for the trees once in production, maybe.

There’s then also the fact that the piece isn’t just about “Fathers” at all. Indeed, from the title, we can perhaps even guess that it’s not even fully intended to be. Presumably conceived in the aftermath of Brexit, and with Stephens, Graham and Hyde all hailing from working (or lower-middle) class backgrounds, and now all (presumably) earning rather significantly more than the average salary, living in fancy old London. The problem is, because “Brexit” is never really directly addressed as a subject, it seems to come out in the cracks, and the authors have inadvertently set themselves up as “the Establishment”. Which is, I’m sure, not how any of them feel, or especially deserve to be treated, but there it is nonetheless. (There’s also the slight problem that, for my money, Ferdy Roberts’s version of Simon Stephens comes across as snide and patronising in a way that I’ve never once seen Simon be in real life, but maybe that’s a matter of Simon beating himself up in the making process and putting a version of all his worst self-criticisms on stage.)

Looked at as generously as is possible: the creative team met this person who challenged the ethics of their project, and rather than ignore that person or hush them up, they put those objections centre stage. The problem is, they didn’t answer the objections in the interview (as far as we’re shown), they’re not answered anywhere else by the piece, and the fact that they’re the focus of so many of the questions means that Fatherland turns into a piece about Simon Stephens, Scott Graham and Karl Hyde – *because* they want to prove that they’re not above sharing the same information about themselves as everyone else. As a result you have this one extraordinary moment where on-stage Simon Stephens is bellowing “I don’t think I could have written the plays I did, if my father hadn’t drunk the way he did” (I paraphrase) while music and crowds of men swirl around him, and it feels like it’s actually the point of the show. And I’m not sure I understand what exactly that point is.

Yes, there’s still lots of other material, much of it touching. But most of that also fairly inconclusive. It feels like the creative team duck the central challenge of the piece: to name the problems of inequality (in terms of both economics and social capital); to examine the extent to which they are complicit in their making; and beyond that, to look properly at the even tougher problems of working class violence, racism, far-right sympathies (which they touch on), and either find counter-narratives, or to say something about their conclusions.

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