Journeys Home to Find the Meaning of Fatherhood

Posted June 7, 2018 8:42 p.m. EDT

LONDON — In February 2015, three men took a road trip back to their hometowns. Their aim was to make an ambitious, genre-defying theater show about fatherhood that they would call “Fatherland.” But it became something more personal. As well as reckoning with what it means to be a dad, they would have to face up to their reasons for leaving home in the first place.

The three men were Simon Stephens, the playwright best known for adapting the novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” into a stage hit on both sides of the Atlantic; Karl Hyde, singer of the pioneering electronic music group Underworld; and Scott Graham, co-founder of the influential theater company Frantic Assembly.

All parents, they decided to collaborate on an idea that Graham had toyed with for years. It was inspired by an evening at a pub with his regular collaborator Eddie Kay, who went on to choreograph “Fatherland.”

“We were talking about our dads,” said Graham, 47. “There was some poignant stuff, but we were also having a laugh, and we said, ‘We should make a show about this!'”

They realized, however, that their show would have to be about something bigger than their own experiences. “I wanted to get beyond that and find a ways of accessing other people to get a broader idea of fatherhood and what that might mean,” said Graham.

Together, they hit on the idea that would make “Fatherland” work. They would rent a car and drive from the London area, where they live, to Graham’s hometown, Corby, 90 miles north of the capital. They would conduct interviews on the subject of fatherhood with residents of the town, and would then visit Stockport, near Manchester, where Stephens grew up, and Bewdley in the Midlands, where Hyde is from.

All three are small, postindustrial towns whose traditional industries — steel, silk and carpets — have declined in the men’s lifetimes.

Transferring to the Lyric Hammersmith theater in London after an acclaimed run in Manchester last year, “Fatherland,” which runs through June 23, is a startling and exhilarating show. It maps out the men’s odyssey with a text culled from their conversations and interviews, enlivened with music, dance and a huge amateur chorus.

Based on interviews with old friends and strangers, as well as Hyde’s father, “Fatherland” finds many threads and commonalities in parenting. Above all, though, it comes across as a show about sacrifice and reconciliation that asks why people leave their hometowns — and by extension, their parents — and whether it is possible to meaningfully go back.

Hyde’s relationship with his father runs as a thread through the show. His career as a musician has taken him around the world, and his daughters spent a lot of time traveling with him on the international festival circuit during their formative years. Hyde said his life turned out very differently from the one his father imagined for him, following in his footsteps in the local carpet industry.

“As a teenager I didn’t like the guy, I was really disappointed in him,” Hyde, 61, said about his father. “Now I’m astonished at what he did for me and my sister and our family. This guy had a vision, which I thought he couldn’t possibly have because, hey, he didn’t go to university. He has spent his entire life protecting his kids and being a decent man, and that was quite extraordinary. Can I live up to that? Not sure, actually.”

Graham noted that they mostly got “incredibly raw, honest, funny, highly emotional stories of survival” from the interviews. “All of the people we talked to who had children themselves wanted to make sure they never made the same mistakes as their own fathers.”

They didn’t know how uplifting their stories were, he said, although he acknowledged there was an awkwardness to some of the conversations.

“The process of being an artist challenges everything,” Graham said. “I became aware of how uncomfortable I felt going back and meeting people I hadn’t seen for 26 years.” It made him feel “like some arty fraud,” he added.

Graham’s fears that they would not be welcomed were mostly unfounded. But Hyde, Stephens and Graham each said they were startled at the resentment expressed toward London and its surrounding areas, where much of Britain’s power and wealth are concentrated. Luke, a character in “Fatherland,” mocks the three for selling out and abandoning their places of birth to live the easy life in London.

“Fatherland” does not represent a solution to Britain’s internal turmoil, nor does it contain a grand universal thesis of fatherhood. But it does seek to bring the voice of small towns to the big city and suggests that mutual understanding between father and son, town and city, is possible when people are willing to listen.

“There’s a line from ‘A Woman of No Importance,'” said Stephens, the playwright, “which Oscar Wilde has about parents: ‘Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.’ I think you could say the same about hometowns.”

Graham said that what he saw as the main story in “Fatherland,” the one that concludes the show, was also a tale of forgiveness.

“One of the guys who we interviewed told us how he was having a bad day,” he said, “and he turned to his daughter and swore at her.”

“She went off and he felt awful,” he continued. “At her bedtime he said: ‘I want to talk to you. I shouldn’t have said that to you, no adult should say that to you.’ And she said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Dad, just this once, I’ll forgive you.'”

When the creators were putting together the show, they could never find the right place to fit that story. But when they placed it at the end, it “just pulled everything into focus,” said Graham. “It was the power of the child to forgive that makes everything all right.”