The Truth/ La Vérité
Florian Zeller is French theatre’s enfant chéri and he is taking the UK and the world by storm. Following the success of his play The Father (Le Père) the most acclaimed new play of the past decade (2014 Molière Award for Best Play, Olivier nomination and currently nominated for Best New Play at this year’s Tony Awards) Zeller’s latest success The Truth (La Vérité) transferred last week to the Wyndham’s Theatre.
This elegant and slick take on boulevard comedy tackles hypocrisy and unfaithfulness: two favourite French themes since Molière and Feydeau. It is seamlessly translated by Christopher Hampton, in whose version Zeller’s admiration for Pinter becomes even more apparent: simple sentences delivered on a knife’s edge betray the character’s motives and contradictions and open the gulf that separates us from others.
The story is simple, Michel, a middle aged businessman, has been having an affair with Alice: his best friend’s wife. When she makes demands for deeper intimacy, Michel must come up with ever more complicated alibis, to dodge his wife’s suspicions. That’s the surface of it. However, in The Truth everyone is a liar and nothing is quite what it seems. Although Michel is the real ‘cad’ of the farce, every other character is hiding something too and attempting to manipulate the situation to their advantage. Each scene reveals a new layer of lie and deceit.
Zeller was inspired by Voltaire’s view and took it to the extreme:
Le mensonge n’est un vice que quand il fait du mal; c’est une très-grande vertu quand il fait du bien. Soyez donc plus vertueux que jamais. Il faut mentir comme un diable.
‘A Lie is only a sin when it does harm, it is a great virtue when it does good. Be then more virtuous than ever and lie like a devil’
Of course, lying is one of the great comic resources of the theatre, how fun it is for the audience to be in on the truth (although this play’s sophistication is that we actually don’t quite know what is really going on) and watch a character lie through its teeth. Then invention, the playfulness, the stakes! That’s what theatre is made of. And here, Alexander Hanson does an absolutely perfect job of it. Watching him on the verge of decomposition as his alibis unravel and he tries to keep his face on is the joy of this production.
I was also glad to see Tanya Franks on stage after loving her outrageousness in Pulling (must-see if you haven’t yet). Frances O’Connor and Robert Portal are excellent too. However, the pleasure of seeing great actors at work wasn’t quite enough to entirely convince me. A man cheating on his wife, lying and getting away with it in the end is something we have seen too often by now. But what if the anti-hero had been a woman?…that would’ve sparked my curiosity more.
In any case, The Truth is well written, impeccably acted and directed. It’s really good fun overall and you have all summer to see it (ends September 3rd) if you want to be introduced to Florian Zeller’s work. Now that I have, I will look out for upcoming performances of The Father and check out his published work.
In the meantime, to practice your French (before or after seeing the English production) here is an extract of the play in its French version, with the original cast (Pierre Arditi and Fanny Cotençon as Michel and Alice).