This Boy’s Life: English Pre-U pupils consider mental health and wellbeing in 'The Son'

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In a busy first Half Term of theatre-going, Lower Sixth Pre-U English students travelled to the Duke of York’s Theatre to see The Son, Florian Zeller’s uncompromising look at teenage mental health.

For many observers, fifteen year old protagonist Nicholas might seem to have an enviable life: a comfortable home in an affluent London suburb, loving parents who take an interest in his life and a father keen to pass wisdom to his first born son.  But from the very outset of the play - where a frantic Nicholas defaces the pristine white walls of his home with black ink - the audience see a young man who could not be more isolated. 

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What unfolds in the 'two hours traffic' of the play no doubt strikes a familiar chord with any young audience: the violent mood swings of a boy trapped in an existence he cannot understand; the inevitable tensions which divide a family under strain, the well-meaning parent, trying to make a connection, only seeming to push their child further away. 

Given that Pre-U students have begun the term considering questions of canon formation— what distinguishes the ‘classic’ and ‘literary’, from the merely popular or entertaining, this play made for an interesting study. 

In Lizzie Clachlan’s design, students clearly saw a text keen to work on several levels.  The presence of a mounted stag’s head on stage, as well as an ominous-looking black bag hoisted high above the focal point of a chaise lounge seemed to intrigue:  were these metaphors for the boy or the family itself?  Were we looking at projections of Nicholas’ own mind, or were these objects real in the world of the play?  Will Hopkins and Evan Nayler, literature students not unfamiliar with the stage, certainly approved of this ambiguity.  So far, so good.

For those students with experience of drama, the performances in this play were outstanding.  Laurie Kynaston’s Nicholas was palpably fragile and John Light, rather aptly, shone in his role as desperate father Pierre. 

But when it came to the writing itself, the potential for sub-text and subtlety, literature students felt a slight lack.  Young Nicholas’ grandfather loomed in the background, but could more have been done to explore the impact of fathers on sons?  Was it more satisfying, from a dramatic perspective, to know less about the causes of Nicholas’ spiral into depression, or would it have been more artistically ambitious to take on that most problematic of questions: why?  Why did a boy with everything in the world suddenly press the self-destruct button?   Modern psychology suggests lots of possible causes, but was the play brave enough in delving deeper?  Many students felt that a truly classic play would have done so.

This was, without doubt, a shocking and important drama focusing on a topic that none of us should turn away from.  For any human, it offers a reminder of the importance of empathy, understanding, patience and trust in our relationships.  But could it have done more?  As an artwork, could it have taken its audiences closer to the heart of the issues it explored? As we left, questions continued.  Had this play, in Italo Calvino’s phrase, ‘finished saying what it had to say’, or was there more in it that we had not seen?  Time will tell whether The Son is merely an arresting drama, or an important work that we return to again and again. 


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