The coats stand out in the exhilarating performance piece Fatherland now on at the Lyric, Hammersmith after its premiere in the Manchester International Festival in 2017. The armour of manhood in the 21st century. Men in black, beige and tan coats. Leather jackets. Tracksuit tops. Parkas. Faceless firemen in what might as well be hazmat suits in a nightmare of X- Files proportions. Marching, swaying, writhing, climbing, dropping from the sky. Using ladders and doorways to fly. Gathered in a workers’ or maybe hobos’ circle around the glow of a bonfire and marching through the streets like a massed football army but with flags that appear to be made of delicate silk. The sole flash of colour is the red of a Man U top standing out for its brightness in the gloom as much as for its ancient sponsor’s logo.
And only men’s voices are heard – from baleful to operatic. At one stage the 13 men on stage are joined by massed voices from the aisles and circle. The men (like the audience thankfully) are diverse in ethnicities and accents. Fatherland finds myriad stunning ways to express verbatim testimony collected from small-town England and echoed through songs and chants against Karl Hyde’s brooding soundtrack which booms or whispers. Telling stories of harrowing sadness about fathers lost or never known. These are the stories of “real” men where real means from Kidderminster, Stockport and Bewdley and emphatically still there. Men who haven’t left to join the metropolitan elites which the creators Hyde, Scott Graham and Simon Stephens aren’t afraid to allow themselves to be mockingly identified with. And the men in Fatherland don’t want to leave their home towns: one character is sure that the place you grew up in makes you who you are.
The question reverberating through the show is “what is the earliest memory of your father?” In his memoir And When Did you Last See Your Father? Blake Morrison describes unflinchingly the black, white and greys of his relationship with his dad, the contradictions of the respected professional and family man who nonetheless seems addicted to small petty triumphs and finding ways to cheat the system. And not only his father’s status as a figurehead is ambiguous: looking back through the family tree he finds a “heritage of neglect” and the example of “the Absent Father, who had his story too, grief and nervous breakdown”. In the media to be a contemporary father is almost automatically flawed – notable usually for being both needed and not there – and the paternal relationships of the men in Fatherland portray all those complexities and then some.
Fatherland is not just about fathers – it’s very much about being a son too and the pain of one not being able to connect with the other. Women and girls are mentioned of course – what is stark and powerful is the love of fathers for the daughters they protect or raise single-handedly. But the stage is a space for men’s stories and movement, the raggedy bravado of their cockiness a front for aching tales of not being loved. As one character says: we all hurt.
My favourite depictions: Graham (Neil McCaul), whose affable Dad Zero unpacks his childhood scars; Mel’s (Michael Begley) hymn of a climb into horror which defies any attempt to pigeonhole his chirpy Black County persona; Daniel (David Judge), brittle, fragile and still standing through his own battles with mental health; and the scarcely buried violence of Alan (Joseph Alessi) whose stare, stance or even slight pause convey years of “being a bit handy”.
But Fatherland isn’t just a journey through the bad bits of being a man – it finds ways to lift you into admiration and eventually joy including with a stunning flash mob chorus on the night I attended in the bar post-show. I smiled a lot not least because of the gratingly incongruous but perfectly fitting reference to the children’s movie Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and the tongue-tied and repressed father in that story who needs a machine to make his love audible.
The poet John Hegley explores his relationship with his father in several pieces in the collection The Sound of Paint Drying. One poem October ’71 describes how Hegley Senior presented his son with his old artist’s brushes. Hegley Junior asks his dad why he gave up painting and finds the answer is: He gave up for me to go on. Fatherland’s stunning visions will leave men asking themselves what legacy they will be remembered for. Go see it.
Fatherland is at the Lyric Hammersmith until June 23rd, 2018
By Alexis Keir