Florian Zeller’s The Son sits mental health at the family dining table, occupying a rightful space in the domestic sphere. Clear lines of intention clash, cross and run parallel under the nebulous presence of the troubled Nicolas: the spectral, misunderstood teenage figure of the title. This Conflict is weaved masterfully throughout the plot, as the audience witnesses a fractured family struggling to provide necessary support for an overburdened young man.
What warranted a laugh from the audience in the line ‘have you ever seen a teenager radiating happiness?’ (in a metatheatrical display of ‘proving the point’) actually signals a destructive fracture at the core of the play. Poor mental health is often trivialised and downplayed at the expense of due, healthy treatment.
Characters are conjured onto the stage as drifting ghosts at the mention of their name, only to seamlessly immerse themselves into dialogue at unexpected intervals. This dialogue is punchy and hard-hitting. The unseen, or ignored characters, create layers under dialogue and provide an interesting antithesis to widely naturalistic performances. Zeller displays this beautiful naturalism through misaligned objectives and questions that remain unanswered. Miscommunication comes to the fore: ‘Do you understand me?’
The space at the Kiln does grandeur and decay spectacularly. The staging and set construction consistently hit the mark. Scandinavian design, unobtrusive colour palettes and smooth, sliding doors gravitationally charge the most jarring elements of the set. Nicolas’ ‘baggage’ looms above the stage only to be released in a gaudy spillage of his material childhood. He scrawls black marker across white walls in physical gestures that align with his mental incongruity in an unfixed familial environment. The sound design accompanies these crescentic glimpses into Nicolas’ inner turmoil; dissonant piano and ever-present bass underscore an invisible, but destructive mental battle.
Whilst all characters are fully realised and played well, standout performances come from the tragic duo of John Light as Pierre and Laurie Kynaston as Nicolas. Both exercise tight physicalisation as their footwork is mirrored and often akin to that of a choreographed dance. This patterned physicality becomes increasingly symbolic in a scene in which Pierre’s signature dance move becomes a rite of passage for the prodigal son, imitated by Nicolas. But even here, in a moment of jubilance in an otherwise emotionally turbulent piece of drama, we see a stem cause of Nicolas’ turmoil: the paternal imposition of an unrealistic ‘son’ archetype, that just doesn’t sit right.
So here we see the crux of the play. Mental health mustn’t be placed in a box and labelled with others’ concerns. Mental health must never be ‘baggage’. Zeller tells us to watch. Through her work, she tells us to listen and to hear our loved ones not through our own lens, but theirs. A cry for help isn’t always a black marker on a white wall, it may occupy the space of the subtle hues of grey found in mundane life.