“I can’t manage it… Living… I can’t manage living”.
Nicholas has changed. He is not well. He is skipping school and lying to his parents. At night, he does not sleep, only paces up and down his room. He has no friends and, with no interest in making any, often isolates himself. He has violent outbursts, and keeps a knife under his mattress. Following his parents divorce, Nicholas suffers from severe anxiety, paranoia, a disconnect from reality, and an acute depression. He self-harms, and frequently has suicidal tendencies, burdened down by the pointlessness of life. Nicholas moves in with his father, hoping for a fresh start. When he senses he has become a disturbance however, and moves back in with his mother, his options begin to run out.
Moliere Award-winning playwright and “the most exciting playwright of our time”, (The Times) Florian Zeller’s highly anticipated ‘The Son’ makes it UK premiere at the Kiln Theatre, the final part of a critically-acclaimed trilogy preceded by ‘The Father’ and ‘The Mother’.
Translated by Christopher Hampton, Michael Longhurst directs this unflinchingly potent examination of mental illness and suicide, in a play that examines the destructive consequences of parental divorce in an adolescent struggling to cope.
In a play so powerful, its cast more than deliver, their performances outpourings of acute and intense emotion, anchored with a raw and vivid sincerity that is, on many an occasion, not just moving, but tear-inducing. The quality of acting here is stupendous, every member of the small yet mighty cast giving the most precise, finely-tuned, nuanced performances than any you will find.
Laurie Kynaston gives a performance that as good as guarantees a long and successful career in this industry, establishing himself as a rising star to watch out for, both on stage and on the screen. A sensational young talent, his performance as Nicholas is so compelling, so cripplingly convincing, so monumentally memorable, as to leave a conscious mark on your heart, one that continues to plague you long after the production is over.
His character torn apart by the separation of his parents, to the point Nicholas feels he has been chopped in two, Kynaston has a mature command of stage and audience which, despite the character’s bouts of detachment, force us to invest in him. Kynaston demonstrates a natural and complementary sense of movement that often sees him biting his nails, shifting uncomfortably and fumbling with his trouser leg, persuading us of the character’s anxiety.
Through this performance, we see an extreme, though no less common, case of the potential for parental divorce to affect a young person who, although still worshipping both parents, is burdened by a disgust, notably of his father’s abandonment of himself and his mother. His self-harming becomes a means of relief, by which Nicholas might channel his pain, and it is a pain Kynaston masterfully coerces the audience into feeling, not just for Nicholas, but also on behalf of his parents.
Amanda Abbington is wonderfully moving as Anne, Nicholas’ mother, whole-heartedly embodying the struggle of a mother whose child, her “little sunbeam”, is so tragically in need of help. Abbington’s performance overflows with a natural maternal manner as she contemplates on the past joy of her now-broken family, with a deeply entrenched, instinctual feeling that “this isn’t going to end well”. Although heartbroken at the change in her son, Abbington’s Anne tries to give him space, to keep calm in front of him, so as not to exacerbate, to provoke, how he is feeling, and to respect his wishes. We cannot help but feel what is an affecting agony when she explains to Pierre that Nicholas looks at her with such hatred in his eyes, that it frightens her.
John Light’s Pierre is particularly poignant, when his staunch father figure is interjected with moments of complete and utter breakdown, as at the end of the production, his wailing so profoundly moving, to the point it borders on unsettling, as we feel so deeply the torment of a father who believes he has failed. Pierre, who didn’t have a positive relationship with his own father, to the extent that he now loathes the very role itself, is bent on laying down rules, rules that are non-negotiable, believing that Nicholas needs a firmer hand than he has been used to at Anne’s. With well-meaning intent, he begins to apply pressure on Nicholas, hoping it will inspire his son to want to succeed. However, this plan backfires, and Nicholas doesn’t respond well to such pressure, and the two fight when Nicholas refuses to adhere to pressure. Pierre disgusts himself when he finds himself repeating phrases that he father would use with him, and blames himself for Nicholas’ subsequent behaviour.
It is not long before Anne and Pierre are faced with a very difficult decision, and we see love as a veil that blinds them to reason and to rationality, against medical advice. In some cases, as in this one, we learn that “love is not enough”. It aches to see two well-meaning parents, trying to do what they truly believe is best for their son, blame themselves when tragedy strikes, as we see the helplessness of, not just a primary victim, but those secondary victims – the family.
Amaka Okafor also gives a praiseworthy performances as Sofia, Pierre’s new partner, mother to their baby Sacha. Although disturbed somewhat by Nicholas’ continuous and weighty presence in her home, Sofia tries her best to welcome him, and to stimulate him to get involved with the family. She is understanding to a degree, but we also see that Nicholas being there was not something for which she had planned, as she occasionally confronts Pierre. However, it is clear that she does not trust him and, at one point oblivious to Nicholas standing behind her, tells Pierre that “He’s weird… Don’t say he isn’t.In fact, he’s ultra-weird. The look in his eyes, it’s worrying sometimes. He… I mean, let’s face it, open your eyes, he’s not right in the head!”. It is such a chilling, ignorant remark that drives Nicholas back to his mother.
Through his manipulation, and ultimately his destruction, of the set, Nicholas gives us visible cues that mirror the chaos inside his mind. Early on in the production, almost immediately after moving into his father’s house, Nicholas trashes the place, violently throwing things around, tearing curtains from their railings – establishing a turmoil akin to what young people may experience after the separation of their parents, as their lives can become disjointed, jarring, in a state of turmoil itself. Interestingly, however, nothing is done. Pierre does not appear to see these cues, and Sofia, if she does, chooses to ignore them. Life goes on, everybody continues as normal, as though this turmoil, this chaos, does not exist.
After what appears a brief moment of calm, if not happiness, for Nicholas, as he, Pierre and Sofia dance, carefree, to Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’, a song so incongruous, yet entirely effective in depicting a state of incompatible conflict, he storms to his room, and when Pierre goes after him, Sofia begins to tidy away a few items, folding Nicholas’ clothes, and lining up his shoes. This comes at a point in which Pierre, and Sofia to a degree, believe Nicholas is improving – he appears to be attending his new school, even getting good marks in his exams, and claims he has been invited to a party. A small, fleeting, shy glimmer of hope in an emotional rollercoaster of a play that, once it has you firmly in the clutches of its snowballing sense of foreboding, is loathe to let go.
It is not until the very end of the play, however, until the set returns to a tranquillity, albeit a harrowing one, as two clinically-dressed women brush all props, all the former turmoil of the set – Nicholas’ belongings, his childhood toys, his games – to one side, and with its absence comes a clarity, total relief, and in more ways than one.
A chaos had been ignored for so long, treated as normal, figuratively brushed aside, seen as a passing phase, one that was easier to pretend didn’t exist, that it would soon go away, and everything would go back to normal.
It didn’t. In fact in most cases, it doesn’t. The physical cues, the warning signs, were there, but were ignored, were left untreated – and the consequences were tragic.
Frequently during the production, Nicholas scribbles on the blank walls of the set with a marker pen, a notable line he writes being: “It’s all mixed up in my head”. We learn that Nicholas had always enjoyed writing. Now, what was a hobby becomes a frantic, desperate, almost hopeless attempt for him to streamline his chaotic thoughts, to understand what is happening to him, to try to make sense of it all. So many times, he is asked by his parents for reasons behind his behaviour, and they use questions (“why?”) and phrases (“explain it to me”) that require a rational explanation. However, there is no rational explanation for what is going on inside Nicholas’ head.
To say Nicholas will not answer would be incorrect, the truth is that he CANNOT answer. He doesn’t understand what is happening to him, and this scares him. The reason for such behaviour as Nicholas is displaying is not always clear, and there may be many factors that act as a cause, a trigger, for such. Even if we do not understand, there has to be an acknowledgement, and more importantly an acceptance, that these warning signs are not simply a ‘passing phase’, and we have to realise how to spot them, and how to act, and the importance of doing so quickly and effectively, before it is too late. there needs to be, there MUST be, a realisation that there can be no passing over it, no pushing it aside, no pressurising it – that everything will not just ‘go back to normal’.
At one hour, forty five minutes and with no interval, this abrupt production runs on intensity, heightened by the Kiln’s Theatre’s intimate setting, resulting in a hard-hitting but critically urgent play urging us to contemplate the necessity of a masterpiece such as this that, though making for an uncomfortable watch, does just what theatre should do. IS just what theatre should be.
Theatre at its most powerful, this is the most substantial, organic, vital play to grace the stage in recent years. Its characters, the most deserving of our investment. This really is an honour to witness.
As a piece of writing, a piece of theatre, a piece of art, ‘The Son’ is “astonishingly beautiful”. Astonishingly, devastatingly, heart-breakingly, gut-wrenchingly, soul-searingly, earth-shatteringly, beautiful.