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The Theatreguide.London Review

Fatherland
Gate Theatre    February-March 2011

In Tom Holloway's play a father and daughter spend an awkward evening together.

It is clear from their behaviour that they are uncomfortable - their conversation is filled with long pauses, unfinished sentences, hopeful reassurances that they're being 'normal', and eventually completely bizarre actions.

What is not at all clear is why. The nature of their relationship, the back story that has led them to this point, what they are thinking and feeling now, even the question of whether they are what they seem - these things are all kept from us.

It is not a matter of failing to give us any clues. The play is full of things that obviously have some symbolic or metaphoric significance.

A whole scene is devoted to setting up and knocking down dominoes, and another to the silent watching of a TV cartoon. The telephone keeps ringing and being ignored.

A pizza delivery motorcycle crashes through the wall and is ignored, except for taking the pizza. (That one is not in the text, and is evidently director Caroline Steinbels' addition).

At one point the girl smears the man's face with chocolate ice cream. Later there is a particularly gory but clearly symbolic and not realistic event.

The play is overflowing with symbols. But the playwright has forgotten that the whole point of symbol and metaphor is that they communicate, not that they be part of an opaque private vocabulary. Reaching for ambiguity and mystery, he instead finds gratuitous mystification.

In the course of watching and trying to follow the play, I came up with a half-dozen possible back stories or metaphorical interpretations, none of which worked.

After the play I read a long programme note by the director that spells out in great detail her understanding of the characters' history and psychology and the play's events and meanings.

All I can say is that I saw none of what she says while watching the play, and can see none of it in retrospect even with her pointing me toward it.

I assume she let her actors, Jonathan McGuinness and Angela Terence, in on her interpretation. But she seems to have sworn them to secrecy, because they devote much of their admirable energy to closing us off from their characters and not giving anything away.

Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and other writers far greater than Tom Holloway have taught us that a playwright has every right not to tell us everything. But a play has to let us in somehow, and everything here from script to direction to performances seems designed to keep us out.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Fatherland - Gate  Theatre 2011

 

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