Vere (Faith), a new play by John Doyle, is the best play about dementia that I've seen. At least I think it is. At least I don't think I've seen any other plays about dementia. To be honest, I can't remember. Now then, what day is it? (Having had three relatives die from dementia, I found myself recently wondering about the standard questions that get asked to check a person's mental stability: where are you, what's your name, what day is it, and so on. My thoughts went to that other stalwart demand: "who's the prime minster"? It's been a bit hard to keep track of lately, so one hopes that parademics and the like have a spare question or two.) Joking and faux lapses aside, the only other play I can recall that even touches on some of the same themes is King Lear, as one could make the case that he has a form of dementia, instead of just "madness". Obviously, Vere (Faith) does not compare favourably to Shakespeare's masterpiece. (No surprises there.) What's unfortunate is that it does not compare favourably to many other plays this year, either.
The cast of Vere (Faith). Photo by Matt Nettheim.
The set up is so: Vere (Paul Blackwell) is a highly respected academic historian working for a university. He's won awards, he's had a grand career, etc, etc. We open the play with him giving a final lecture to his class (that is, the audience) for the year, hoping that some might return next year, and wishing those who aren't good fortunes for their futures. Then, we cut to his office, where Marissa (Ksenja Logos) has news for him, of a most unpleasant kind. He has the worst type of dementia possible, you see; he'll be lucky to have full sanity in a month's time. "But what about Switzerland," Vere asks? Vere is obsessed with the "God Particle", also known as the Higgs Boson, and plans to visit the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland to be there when it happens (or at least have been at the site of where it will). (The Large Hadron Collider, as is explained in the play, was built expressly for the purpose of discovering the aforementioned particle.) All seems to be going well, dramatic- and entertainment-wise, but then the play shifts a gear, or, rather, perhaps never shifts a gear that this critic thought was coming. We end up, for the rest of the first half, still stuck in this same academic office, as various characters from the university – the vice chancellor (Geoff Morrell), the other teachers (Rebecca Massey and Yalin Ozucelik), the enthusiastic pupil (Matilda Bailey), and the researcher (Matthew Gregan) – interact with each other and discuss the issues of the day. And discuss they do: this is a play about ideas, make no mistake.
The problem is that the ideas often feel like they are forced in, and stop the action in the process. It's not that everything that needs explaining is explained in the play – one doesn't want an audience to have no idea what's going on – it's that there is just so much that needs explaining. Physics has to be explained, including what the Higgs Field is, as well as the God Particle. History needs to be explained. Dementia needs to be explained. Social media needs to be explained. It feels, at times, like all there is is explanation, and while it is quite comical throughout – with the occasional poignancy – it's not comical enough to be worth it. Unless the second act, of course, requires all of it to round out a brilliant night at the theatre.
Spoilers, unfortunately, dear reader, shall now follow. (They are not so much spoilers about what happens, but spoilers about the structure of the play, which makes for some of the comedy and meaning that follows.) Be warned.
The second half, then, is set at Vere's home. He's determined to get to Switzerland, but his family (who we now meet for the first time) are merely humouring his requests. ("Yes, dad, the flight's been booked," and so on.) His mental state has deteriorated to dangerous levels, and he only has the occasional moments of lucidity. The structure of the play is very cleverly done, however, as we find that all the actors from the first half are doubling different characters in the second, to comical effect. Geoff Morrell, the foul and lewd vice chancellor, is now a Christian minister, father to Vere's grandson's fiance. Massey, also foul mouthed in the first half, plays his devoted and ultra-religious wife. The reader may extrapolate that the rest of the characters are suitably 'flipped', as it were, into the new situation. The reason why this is so clever is that Vere, in his state of dementia and confusion, starts to confuse the characters in the second half with those in the first, and we, as an audience, can see what's happening in his mind when he does it. He blabs that his grandson used to pick his nose in public all the time, when in actual fact, it was the researcher, played by the same actor, who did so. All in all, very clever.
But while it may be clever, it isn't as entertaining as it wants to be. Indeed, one feels that it was at least twenty minutes too long. Not only that, but the long set-up of the first half was not worth, in this critic's opinion, the payoff in the second. One has nothing but admiration for the way the characters were manipulated by the playwright – and admiration for the audacity and technical worth of the structure of the play – but one would've liked to see it spend less time on abstract ideas, and thus less time in total. I am a fan of Stoppard's work – so plays of ideas are glorious things to me – but this one just didn't do it.