The Exchange Theatre in Manchester is arranged in the round, there is a loud drumbeat all around you, and lights flash in your face from all angles. In the centre, a man on a wire is being swept up and around the stage, flying to the edge of the audience and pronouncing “This is my son!” It’s a spectacular moment, and for me was one of the highlights of Fatherland, a new production by Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham, Karl Hyde from electronic group Underworld, and playwright Simon Stephens (Writer of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Punk Rock). This moment illustrates how well they had incorporated sound and movement into this verbatim piece, elevating it (quite literally in this example) into a truly moving production.

The writers travelled to each of their hometowns, interviewing a number of fathers, of sons of fathers, or both, and the stories feel grounded in these locations of Kidderminster, Corby, and Stockport. The danger with verbatim theatre is that the content comes across as dry (for an examination of another recent piece of verbatim theatre, see culturised’s thoughts on Carol Ann Duffy’s Brexit-examining My Country: A Work in Progress). Stephens himself in the programme speaks of the importance of a firm editing hand, that “too many words deadens drama”. Fatherland, however, is anything but boring. Running in a rapid ninety minutes with no interval, it smoothly intertwines testimonies with new music and a rotating stage.

Fatherland makes it clear that it is obviously impossible to create a true profile of fatherhood in the UK. One of the characters plays the internal role of critic in this performance as the play remains aware of its limitations. He is sceptical, and unsure as he questions the writers about their motives for these interviews. He asks “Why don’t you just make it up?”, and grills them on the ability to argue that the play displays the truth, when the script is a heavily edited version of what was originally said. He makes a lot of very valid points. Is it really fair to call these “testimonies” when they have been edited and constructed in such a way to get certain emotional points across? It’s something of which the writers were clearly aware through the entire process, verbatim theatre being a genre of which they admit to having been “deeply suspicious”[1] in the past. At the same time, it is worth remembering that these characters weren’t created to make a point about something, they are real people with all the complexities and confusions that entails. Sometimes their opinions amble off into a shrug, or fail to get properly explained, the kind of realism it’s actually quite surprising to hear on stage.

A lot of this play takes what was said in the interviews that form the script, and tries to shape and imagine what else was being communicated: those things not able to be expressed through sound. Many of these men have never opened up to anyone like this, their stories being told for the first time. In these talks and subsequently in production, the team opened up these fathers’ experiences, and their raw honesty fills the stage, most emotively through song. These are also created from the interviews, and are rich, modern folk songs. The sound of thirteen men belting out laments on how the word love isn’t used between this man and his father flows right through you. They are all so loud and full of depth, it’s very moving, especially in relation to some of the more emotionally charged subjects. The repetition, coupled with the echoes, creates a feeling of a much larger crowd. In a way the acoustics of Fatherland reminded me of sporting chants, especially in the moments where the songs grew as more people joined in, giving a feeling of growth like a fire.

Probably the most important props in Fatherland are the various coats and the way they are used. Coats come on, get pulled off, fall from the sky, and envelop these men. The act of putting them on becomes a responsibility, or a burden, taking them off becoming an opening up or exposure. The opposite of these also becomes true throughout the performance. The coats are certainly tools for action, not heavy metaphors. It is very interesting to see their role in the movement of the piece, and how fabric becomes one of the few adornments to the action. Save for a thin flag and the coats, one of the only other props is a daisy, which is used to represent a young man’s daughter of the same name. It’s delicately put in his pocket after talking about his fears of the responsibility of raising a child.

It is clear that many of the interviewees really opened up in ways they hadn’t perhaps ever before. Wondering if their parents would approve of them, whilst simultaneously being terrified of becoming them was a repeated thought, and often made striking with stories of their own fathers’ various problems with alcohol. What is striking about Fatherland is that the characters on stage come across as genuine human beings, and their concerns about the terrifying reality of parenthood are easily accessible for the audience watching on.

There was also an implication by a sceptical interviewee that the writers were undertaking a classist pursuit: heading out of London to these northern towns to find “real” people. These writers all left their hometowns for the bright lights of London, and so it can be argued can no longer hold any claim over them. How do they ensure their editing gives these real people the voice they deserve, rather than some kind of patronising cultural tourism, leaving the audience to gape at the man who lived in Stockport all his life and works in construction. Theatre, after all, still struggles to escape from its middle class confines. I’m not sure the play particularly answered this question, but it was certainly raised, and that’s important in itself.[2]

Fatherland spreads over the spectrum of experiences of fatherhood. There is a light-hearted discussion about the film Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs (2009), which is a good opportunity to recommend this film, it’s one of my favourites.[3] The play fluidly segues into a story about an alcoholic father, and its emotional peak is certainly the visceral scene from an interview with a firefighter. The stage glows with embers and produces a ladder which is used to elevate the speaker almost eye to eye with those in the stalls, everyone moving as though through water. The dream like rendering takes you right into the memories of this moment, which was clearly pivotal in that person’s life. Even though it is clearly a retelling of a story told to the writers, by someone remembering it over 10 years after the event, it feels very tangible and real.

After watching the performance, I had a quick chat with David Judge, who plays Daniel in Fatherland. For him the fact that the script is created directly from reality is something he actually tried to look past, so that he was “not trying to look or sound like the real person I’m playing, but find the heart and breath.” While we the audience are being constantly reminded that these characters are real people, behind the actors is another filter of performance they do well to hide from us. He also described the rehearsal process as being a very physical one, rather than sitting down and examining the text. This process comes through in the end product, as all physicality becomes intertwined with the words of Fatherland and feels very much an extension of it. David is not a father himself, but does think that “being a father is the same that it has been forever.” These experiences we see portrayed in Fatherland are not unique, and are happening now as they always have been. Something I found particularly interesting and reassuring was that David mentioned his character was the only one who asked for his name to be changed for the performance. After he watched what had been created, he asked for it to be changed back to his real name, which does say something about the confidence the interviewees had in the production and the way it has clearly respected their testimonies.

What was lovely was that you felt like you knew all of these fathers. This person was a mate of my parents. That person I heard talking to their kids at the supermarket. That’s something my Grandad would have said. This is definitely something they harness very well from the interviews, and that authentic voice really shines through. It’s this sense of authenticity, combined with an awareness that such a thing is impossible on a theatrical stage, that makes Fatherland such a great piece of theatre. The way the script voices concerns of its own existence mirrors the uncertainty or these characters representation in the arts. This is an important play in uncertain times to be raising children.

 

Fatherland was performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre as part of the 2017 Manchester International Festival

 

[1] Lyn Gardner, “Fatherland: look back in anger, love and pride”, The Guardian 16th June 2017.

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jun/16/fatherland-simon-stephens-karl-hyde-scott-graham-royal-exchange

[2] It’s worth mentioning that class is obviously an incredibly weighted and complicated subject, and is of course not limited to geography. For more on class and cultural tastes in Britain, I highly recommend Grason Perry’s documentary In the Best Possible Taste.

[3] I would like to at the point mention that in Fatherland they do say that Steve is the name of the protagonist inventor. This is incorrect. The inventor is called Flint, and his monkey is Steve. I really like this film.