The social issue of dementia in the community is a difficult subject to broach as an entertainment. Often senile old characters are poked fun at in comedies, or otherwise the approach is serious and heartbreaking as the devastating impact of the disease on both the victims and their families is brought to bear. Uniquely, French playwright Florian Zeller’s 2014 play The Father finds a completely different method of shining light on this subject that provides a barrier from the potentially upsetting emotional impact, while being nonetheless intriguing and compassionate.

Rightfully acclaimed doyen of the Australian theatre, John Bell gives life and astounding character to retired engineer Andre, an elderly Parisian widower who has started to lose things. Both his beloved watch and his memories of recent and more distant events are becoming elusive to him. His daughter Anne (Anita Hegh) berates him about such things and suggests that he needs help to keep his daily life in order, but Andre doesn’t agree. He might forget some things, but who doesn’t, right?

Yet some things and people in his life are beginning to behave suspiciously. First things aren’t where they used be, then items go missing around the house before suddenly strangers come in and make threatening suggestions. Andre is determined to stay in control, but in truth he has already lost it.

Zeller’s construct, as translated to English from the original French by Christopher Hampton, puts the audience squarely in Andre’s shoes. This isn’t a case of observing a situation as impassive outsiders, rather Andre’s confusion at the situation he finds himself in is ours also. What is real and what is imagined is difficult to discern until the sharp 95 minute one-act production reaches its denouement. This is an unreliable narrator story where only once the fullness of misinformation is provided does the truth reveal itself.

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without spoiling the ingenious creation Zeller has shaped with his crafty methodology. A co-production with the STC, this staging by Sydney director Damien Ryan is emotionally cool, yet well measured. Alicia Clements’ classically austere set design is typically French in style and simplicity, as are her stylishly left-of-centre costumes. Rachel Burke’s lighting designs create natural interior illuminations before cutting to complete black for cunning set changes that add to the unsettling atmosphere.

Bell delivers the kind of precise, disciplined and raw performance that one would expect from an actor of his outstanding calibre, while exploring greater emotionally exposing depths than even Shakespeare’s catalogue has afforded him. This is a virtuoso performance giving reality to a proud and intelligent man who is slowly having his dignity stripped away from him, both figuratively and literally.

Anita Hegh is exceptional as Andre’s overwhelmed daughter Anne, who through her father’s confusion is able to show the audience the wide-ranging emotions this sort of affliction can have on a victim’s loved ones. Marco Chiappi gives a robust performance as Anne’s put upon husband, while Glenn Hazeldine and Natasha Herbert play a variety of enigmatic characters, sometimes warm and caring, other times dispassionate and even sinister.  Faustina Agolley, in her stage debut gives a naturally charming, if slightly stilted performance as in-home carer Laura.

Those who’ve been touched by the painful effects of having a loved one suffer from dementia shouldn’t be deterred from this production, for while it is doubtless a deeply emotional subject, Zeller’s story mechanics and Ryan’s restrained direction make this an empathetic but not distressing emotional experience.