The girl in the bright red coat has travelled a long way – through fairytale woods, the pages of Angela Carter and the bleak apartment blocks of the film Hard Candy. Inextricably linked with the wolfish desires of men, with illicit sex and violence, she’s been threatened, frightened and vengeful. And here she is again – the bloodied heart of Caroline Steinbeis’ intense production of award-winning writer Tom Holloway’s disturbing new play about a father-daughter relationship gone terribly wrong.
Angela (Angela Terence), a cute-as-a-button brunette in a shiny red jacket, has agreed to spend the evening with her dad, Mark (Jonathan McGuinness), eating pizza and watching a DVD. Initially, there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary about their bickering and self-consciousness around each other. Angela’s exasperation at Mark’s attempts to talk about her friends and the music she’s been listening to will be excruciatingly familiar to any over-enthusiastic parent of a teenager. But before long Mark’s interest twists into obsession and jealousy and it quickly becomes clear that the pair’s awkwardness is rooted in something far darker than simple familial friction.
What makes Fatherland more than just another harrowing account of a father’s sexual abuse of his daughter (implied but, frustratingly, never confirmed) is its interest in the interdependency of the characters as they try to salvage something normal from the wreckage of their life. The play never trivialises or excuses Mark’s behaviour but neither does it demonise him. Nor does it underplay Angela’s frantic need for her dad as the only connection she has with the childhood that has been lost to her. Whenever the phone rings they both freeze, terrified by what it could mean.
Together, McGuinness and Terence are appropriately off-kilter as two people for whom the roles of parent and child have been rendered meaningless. As Mark, whose manipulation of Angela at the start of the play gives way to freewheeling desperation and blurted declarations of love, McGuinness gives an unsettling, if occasionally stilted and one-note, performance. But it’s Terence who commands the stage, simmering with grief and rage as she vacillates, almost helplessly, between teenage defensiveness and too-adult despair.
The claustrophobic, unhealthy nature of their relationship is reflected in the deceptively simple set, a cramped downstairs room with a security grate on the single, small box window that imprisons as much as it protects. Half-hearted attempts at DIY are stacked up against walls and plastic covers the floor. There’s nowhere to sit and an undecorated Christmas tree in the corner. The atmosphere is thick with empty promises and failure.
As the production progresses the tone becomes increasingly surreal, reaching a turning point when the bike bearing Mark and Angela’s pizza comes crashing through the wall. On the whole these special effects, although hardly subtle in their symbolism, work well; providing a strong visual counterpoint to the pared-down, Pinteresque dialogue. They reach their apex in the gore-soaked magic realism of the final scene, in which hearts are plucked from chests while the distorted sound of a cartoon plays in the background.
Fatherland has a bold vision and much to say, let down only by its reluctance to name the offence around which everything pivots. To do so would have been to trust the audience more. Nevertheless, the closing shot of a serene Angela, huddled in her blood-smeared red coat and cradling her father in her arms like a child, is a stark and strange one that will linger with you long after you leave the theatre.
(At the Gate Theatre, 10 February-12 March 2011)
Reviewed for Exeunt Magazine