A middle-aged man swings through the air, arms out flung, singing of the joy he gets from taking pride in his son.
Another man, lit as if by flames, ascends a ladder and belts out a horrific tale of scraping up the remains of a burned man who had been ‘melted up the wall.’
Fatherland is a play about fathers. It’s also a play about making a play about fathers. Frantic Assembly - Scott Graham, Karl Hyde and Simon Stephens - went back to their hometowns of (respectively) Corby, Kidderminster and Stockport to gather stories about men and their relationships with their children. These stories appear verbatim in the play, retold by actors. Familiar tales of pubs, football matches and emotional inaccessibility are woven into scenes depicting the creators’ anxieties about the ethics of representation in verbatim theatre: is it democratising or exploitative?
Although men in general are still vastly overrepresented in theatre, it is unusual today to see a production of just men and of course, this is the point – men do not need more representation but masculinity itself needs to be put under the microscope. It was telling to hear how different audience members reacted to this – a young man spoke about how the masculine energy of the show never felt aggressive or threatening. Yet, for any women watching, the times where dozens of men circled the perimeter of the Royal Exchange seating area and banged on windows or shouted loudly out of sight, may have been received differently. Suddenly, extra actors would join the cast and a crowd of men would appear seemingly out of nowhere and burst out again, as though their energy couldn’t be contained, like the swell of a football crowd.
But what can theatre do to expose or challenge gender norms? Attitudes to fatherhood and traditional gender roles have shifted and relaxed in some respects (one character quips ‘I was a single dad before being a single dad was cool’) yet still society still does not allow men to freely express their emotions. Suicide is the biggest cause of death for males under 25 and men are less likely to access psychological therapies than women. The two scenes above exemplify moments where emotions that couldn’t be expressed in real life took flight (literally at times) on stage in song and dance. One song has the refrain ‘we don’t say the word’ – the word being ‘love’ which is left unsaid, hanging in the air. But through the song the silence around expression is itself given a voice.
Scott Graham writes in the programme that your hometown ‘is your father.’ If this is the case, each of the creators has somewhat rejected theirs for the apparently irresistible pull of London. Their hometowns are looked back on with a mixture of nostalgia and disdain, Simon Stephens’ character claiming to ‘forgive’ Stockport – a joke which lands particularly hard in Manchester of course and a Manchester fizzing with energy, pride and international recognition brought by the MIF.
Fatherland ends with a monologue of introspection and responsibility – a young father clasps a flower and tells how he apologised to his young daughter for swearing at her. ‘It’s never okay to do that’ he says.
- Nathalie Wright
Links relevant to this diagnosis:
Fatherhood is Changing - The Conversation
Men Struggle to Express their Emotions- Huffington Post
Statistics on Single Fathers - Guardian