Memories, dreams, reflections… Oh, what it is to be old.
Father is old. A ‘dirty old man’. The life of the patriarch is almost done, and he spends his days in an old folks’ home, sitting in a wheelchair, whiling away the hours. What a difference a day makes – or not, if one day rolls into another, time measured out in tea spoons. But outside appearances are one thing: inside his head live the sons and lovers; the acres of land, the seven horses and the one wife; and the songs from the dancehall days. He jitters out a jazzy tune on the old Joanna, a crooner serenades us, and a beautiful young woman twirls and twists her body into impossible shapes. But oh, what now? The music distorts into a growled and plucked parody, and the woman has turned into a Siamese cat, snarling and pouncing on her partner, the two, with unbelievable dexterity, dancing around the room on their knees. Surreal scenes tumble over each other: the Swing band and its audience become a roomful of crowing cocks and clucking chickens, Samba-ing across the coral-red carpet; a demented version of Latin Lounge favourite Feelings features Father and a coterie of older ladies, all desperate for his favours, fighting for a look or a touch from the beloved one.
But then the everyday reality of care home life crashes in: the clothes-stealing, the annoying mosquitoes, and the endless tureens of soup – it’s always soup, whether it’s lunch or supper. Come and eat your soup, Father, says the visiting son, who dutifully turns up every Monday to take Father for a walk, but finds it hard to keep his temper with his old Dad and with the staff. What is going on here? Why isn’t he ready to go out? Where are his trousers? There’s only half an hour for the walk, and ten minutes are lost already…
Peeping Tom’s work is stunningly visual – scenography and dramaturgy are intertwined. The company state that their work employs a ‘hyperrealistic aesthetic anchored to a concrete set’. In this case, the set rises up at the start of the show, a marvellous statement that fixes the notion that everything we will witness is an illusion, a ‘play’. We see tall columns of teal and sea-green, hospital style swing doors, and borrowed light entering from high windows. The live band emerge surprisingly from the dark, placed on a stage within the stage. The deep coral red of the carpets and furnishings complements the greens, an old fashioned combination of colours that manages to suggest both an institution and a faded cabaret setting. The use of props is magical, bringing us close to object theatre at times. Extraordinary dances with brooms (one ridiculously long, sweeping over the heads of performers and audience to the sound of oohs and aahs), the manipulation of wheelchairs, the entwining of human body and piano, an enchanting duet with a mirror…
As for its core themes: at the heart of the piece is a no-holds-barred investigation of father-son relationships. That history repeats, and the distresses of patriarchy are passed down from father to son is played out in numerous ways, but most starkly in a long and unnerving text-based scene (in a production that is mostly movement and visual image based, with minimal words) which sees a younger man deliver an onstage speech, on the stage-within-the stage, in which he rants in an ever-more distressed and emotional manner about the damage done to him by his father’s lack of love and care. This is shot out to the man we’ve previously seen as the son, with the third (eldest) man – the original Father – in the picture too, our gaze moving between the three components of this triangle, everyone else onstage reduced to the role of mere furnishings. Will the cycle be broken? Will the younger man treat his own children any differently? Will he treat his own father differently when he is old and feeble and taking leave of his senses? We doubt it.
But goodness, this is all getting a bit serious – let’s dance! And dance they do – to the tune of whimsical waltzes and breezy bossa novas, or as the dancehall band dissolves back in to the shadows, to the accompaniment of the constant bass-note institutional drone that underscores everything else, a clever sound design decision that reminds us that wherever else our imaginations are taken in the piece – ballroom, nightclub, family party – we in fact never leave the care home. The choreography and movement work is of a quality rarely seen – fluid, rhythmical, surprising, often funny. An opening scene featuring company stalwart Yi-Chun Liu in a cleverly contorted tussle with a handbag sets a ridiculously high marker which is lived up to. There are seven superb performers in the ensemble: older actors Leo De Beul and Simon Versnel play father/son (or grandfather/father, depending how you look at it), and the other five actor-dancers multi-task as sons, daughters, wives, nurses, crooners, cats and whatever else. The seven-strong ensemble is complemented by a team of ten ‘supernumeraries’ – older performers who provide the chorus of care home inmates.
Echoes of Pina Bausch and Ballets C de la B are evident in the piece, particularly Bausch’s Kontakthof, which also investigates ageing and references dancehall days – but there is only a fleeting similarity in the themes and the choreography, Father is very much its own self. It is specifically interested less in ageing per se than in the archetype of the father figure, and how it is when a god is torn down from his pedestal and made ridiculous by the ravages of age.
Father (Vader) is the first part of a trilogy of works by Peeping Tom, premiering in Belgium and Germany in 2014. Mother (Moeder) followed on in 2016 – although it was Mother that was presented first in the UK, at the London International Mime Festival 2018. I found Mother a more difficult and less immediate piece, which makes much more sense now that I know it was the second show in a trilogy: although they are stand-alone shows, it is perhaps best to see them in the order made. The third show, Kind (Child) is in production for 2019 – and will hopefully also come to the UK. It is also worth noting that Father was directed by Franck Chartier, and Mother was directed by Gabriela Carrizo – although there is a signature aesthetic and style of choreography in the company’s work, there is a notable difference in the two company directors’ approaches. We can also note that the two shared the directing credits on their award-winning 32 rue Vandenbranden, for whatever that is worth!
It feels an honour to be able to see this brilliant company once again – and for that a big thank you to the London International Mime Festival for bringing them back. When it comes to satisfying Artaud’s demand for a theatre that ‘furnishes the spectator with the truthful precipitates of dreams’ you really can’t beat Peeping Tom, currently amongst the world leaders in physical/visual work that sits between dance and theatre. Father is a wonderful show – taking its audience on a rollercoaster ride through the borderlands of fantasy and reality– such a delight to see so much skill teamed with such great artistic vision.