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I was once told on a playwriting course that all Western writers today only have decadent topics to work with. One would need to go to places where questions of life and death still rule the everyday, places like Syria or the Congo to find the type of stakes that create great drama. Florian Zeller has proven that teacher wrong. Set in the world of middle-class Parisians, ‘The Son’ goes to the core of the human experience. It is the last play in Florian Zeller’s trilogy. Perhaps this is why he gave each of the plays such basic names: ‘The Father’ winner of the 2014 Moliere award was performed in the UK at the Ustinov in Bath that same year. ‘The Mother’ a story of an empty-nester, was also performed at the Ustinov in 2015.
‘The Son’ begins with the mother, Anne (Amanda Abbington) meeting with the father Pierre (John Light) to talk about their teenage son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) who’s just been kicked out of school. Not far in the background, listening to their conversation while burping her baby is Pierre’s new partner Sofia (Amaka Okafor). Pierre has left Anne for a new, younger woman and they now have a baby together. It’s yawningly cliché and John Light is fantastic as Pierre, a man nicely satisfied with himself. Of course he’ll take Nicolas in. “It’s all going to be fine.” Pierre reassures both Anne and Sofia. Amanda Abbington brings the hesitancy of the defeated to the role of Anne as an abandoned wife and then mother. It’s subtle and it’s wonderful because otherwise she dresses and behaves like the educated professional that she is. Amaka Okafor steps into her role down to her feline movements and bare feet: A predator.
The suspense begins the moment Nicolas moves into Pierre and Sofia’s space. Director Michael Longhurst maintains an uneasy atmosphere. Pierre imposes his reality not only onto his son but to us in the audience as well. We’d like to be invited for dinner at designer Lizzie Clachan’s recreation of a grand Parisian apartment. We are seduced by the beautiful Sofia who keeps telling Pierre that ‘nothing is his fault’ and reminds him of their new shiny life ahead. The thorn in the side of Pierre’s version is Nicolas. John Light is superb as a man who loves his son and wants to get through to him but only on his terms. He is the winner of life after all. Laurie Kynaston makes a brave and intelligent Nicolas, a young man trying to be understood but ready to fight for his truth with the means at his disposal. As he is powerless, his weapons are nihilism and manipulation. In response to his father’s self-satisfaction, he self-harms. At one point, Nicolas is alone with Sofia who is cleaning up after him. She appears maternal and caring and they seem in peace. In the middle of their conversation, Nicolas asks her if she knew his father was married when she met him. Sofia falls silent. Brilliant.
What is more normal in urban societies today than divorce? ‘The Son’ begs to differ. Common is not the same as normal and it is terrifying to think how easily families are destroyed today, often by nothing more than a man’s perceived ‘right to his own life’. Nicolas is not well. We have no way of knowing if he would not have been ill given different circumstances. Zeller is not a preacher and this is not a moral fable. Instead he slowly allows each of the adult characters to fall onto their swords, some made of weakness, others made of selfishness. Madness ensues, and not just for the powerless.
The Son continues at the Kiln till 6th April