In the programme notes to the Donmar Warehouse production of A Voyage Round My Father, 83-year-old playwright John Mortimer writes that he still refers to the standards by which his father lived “because he taught me everything”. At last night’s press performance Mortimer was in attendance to see Derek Jacobi portray his father, a blind barrister who lived by his own rules and dominated his son’s life until his death. Caroline Bishop was there too…
From the opening scene in Mortimer’s autobiographical play, Derek Jacobi as Father is the presiding presence on stage, as he was during his son’s childhood and adult years. A barrister who went blind after hitting his head, Father (as he is referred to throughout the play) lived in his rural home with his wife (Joanna David), who uncomplainingly tended to his every need while he tended to his flowers, quoted Shakespeare and drowned earwigs in a bucket. His blindness was never mentioned or acknowledged, and he continued to travel to London to practise his formidable talents in court. Jacobi portrays a man who had no regard for rules, said what he thought and did what he liked, an attitude which was both cantankerous and fiercely confident, eccentric yet shrewd, amusing but exasperating, and which had an immense impact on his son.
Dominic Rowan, as the adult Son, narrates the story of his life to the audience, starting as a boy at home with his parents – where Lewis Aaltonen plays his younger self – through his years at boarding school with an eclectic mix of teachers, his attempt to start a career in writing during the war, his marriage to divorcee Elizabeth (Natasha Little) and his life as a barrister. Throughout all this, Father influenced his decisions and attitudes: he wrote letters to his son, away at school, with explicit details of the divorce cases he was working on; he disparaged teachers (“Life is a closed book to school masters”); he dismissed his son’s notion of writing and told him to go to the bar instead. The Son, highly influenced by his father, could never conduct himself with the same forcefulness, nor live up to him in court – his choice of a straight-talking, confident wife being the only event that seemed to earn him brownie points in his father’s eyes.
In Thea Sharrock’s production just a few flowers are present on stage as a set; this and a countryside soundtrack are the only devices used to depict the family home. The emphasis is squarely on Jacobi, as the blind barrister, to conjure in our minds the colour and the imagery of a highly individual life.