by Florian Zeller
English version by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Lindsay Posner
Designed by Lizzie Clachan
Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark, London
Friday 8th April 2016, 20.00
Alice – Frances O’Connor
Michel – Alexander Hanson
Laurence – Tanya Franks
Paul- Robert Portal
In spite of many, many importuning e-mails from theatres we never got to see Zeller’s award winning The Father, so were making up for lost opportunity with The Truth. Florian Zeller, with The Father, and with The Mother, is the hottest playwright around at the moment, and Christopher Hampton has done the English version of this French play, as well as being the translator / adaptor of Yasmina Reza (Art, The God of Carnage), the most recent French playwright before Florian Zeller to receive great acclaim in English.
Zeller acknowledges the influence of Harold Pinter’s The Betrayal, quoting from it in the preface to the script, and how do you describe The Truth? At one level it’s a classic French farce tale of marital infidelity, but the hilarious short pithy dialogue makes you think of Pinter, while the exploration of who is telling the truth and who is lying, and the enigmatic nature of some of the short lines made me think of Samuel Beckett. The dialogue is so good, so short and so real that I determined to buy a copy of the text. A simple ‘What?’ is Michel’s trademark line! Director Lindsay Posner has been exploring farce recently from Communicating Doors at the Menier, to A Little Hotel On The Side at Bath Theatre Royal. But there are no banging doors, or surprise arrivals or people in cupboards in this one. A philosophical farce?
Michel (Alexander Hanson) with Alice (Frances O’Connor)
Everything centres around Michel (Alexander Hanson) who begins the play in bed with his mistress Alice (Frances O’Connor), who is the wife of his best friend Paul (Robert Portal). Michel is never off stage during the seven scenes which comprise the play. He is a gloriously unaware hypocrite. Lying, importuning, blustering, outraged, appalled. His performance had us laughing for the entire 90 minutes.
His wife is Laurence (Tanya Franks), and as the seeming truth twists back and forth she has to react and carry the final twists. Both women are more enigmatic than the men, both cooler and more in control too. Alice is a doctor. Laurence is a teacher.
Paul (Robert Portal) and Michel in the gym changing room
Paul is a stiff upper-lip stolid type of few words, but his impassive silence is just about the funniest thing of all. How he kept a straight face while Michel raged, and complained and confessed, I will never know. Michel’s was a performance that would make anyone laugh, let alone someone standing two feet away. Paul also plays with Michel, so that another tale of infidelity (Laurence and Paul) is revealed. But is he telling the truth? And are white lies better than the truth? Who’s Cheating Who? is the title of a Little Milton soul classic record, and it could equally be the title here. And is cheating at tennis worse than cheating in love? Michel seemed to think so, getting the loudest laughs of a laugh-filled evening.
A hotel in Bordeaux: Michel is pretending to be Alice’s elderly sunt
In the end, the teller of lies, Michel, is an amateur compared to the three he’s lying to.
The programme tells us that Zeller’s ‘Le Mensonge‘(The Lie) is currently running in France and is a companion piece, which has the same characters and plot, but is told from a different point of view. We’ll be in line for a ticket as soon as it gets produced here. If you get a chance, do not miss The Truth. It won’t be ending with this Menier Chocolate Factory run.
Michel and Laurence (Tanya Franks). Who’s Cheating Who?
* **** 5 stars
The grey set has sliding panels transforming it swiftly from hotel bedroom to Michel’s house to Alice’s surgery to a gym changing room and to Paul’s house. There are two hotel rooms in fact, one in Paris, one in Bordeaux, but they make the joke that they’re identical. As I’m typing this in the nearby French-owned Ibis Hotel,and have stayed at half a dozen, they’re quite right.
It’s a clever concept. The sliding panel set needs wings to slide into, and the Menier has its stage along the long side of a rectangle, going wall to wall without conventional wings. So they built out the 20% of stage on either side to form wings. Unfortunately, for the front few rows, it means the five or six seats nearest both of the sides are directly facing a blank grey wall, and have to look at an extreme angle sideways to see the stage. The set might well work in its co-production with the conventional stage at Bath Theatre Royal, but at the Menier, it’s simply wrong for the space. People in seats A1 and A2 were rightly asking to move on this performance. It’s a Lizzie Clachan problem. Her Beaux Stratagem at the National Theatre was the worst set we encountered last year. We were sitting to one side (not at the extreme side either) and couldn’t see much of the action. It looked great on the cinema broadcast, but awful for 25% of the audience. This is a designer who views the stage from centre auditorium. Stop. Though the set looked good and worked well, and we were far enough towards the centre in Row C to miss the blank wall but we still came out with stiff necks, and we could hear those in the seats nearest the wall complaining bitterly. Dreadful set design … for the Menier. The trouble is, that the Menier is perfect for the intimacy of the play and the fine detail of the acting. You’re very close, so you can see Laurence’s tear in scene 7, for example, and every nuance of Paul’s tight lips. I’d like to see it again, but I wouldn’t want to be too far back from the action in The West End (that’s true of nearly everything).
Lighting and sound were both excellent.
I’ve stopped worrying, and though there were “this play contains smoking’ warnings’ I think Alice’s post-intercourse cigarette was merely brandished rather than lit. Good, it still made the point very well.
TEXT – I bought it
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