By any estimate, Florian Zeller has had a charmed career. He hit fame in France in his mid-20s when his third novel, The Fascination of Evil, became a bestseller and was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. Now in his 40s, he has turned his reputation as a wunderkind of French literary culture into an international phenomenon.
It’s easy to see why: Zeller is an adept and supple writer whose work dances easily across art forms and national borders. His virtuoso translator, Christopher Hampton, has helped him to bridge the often difficult gap between English and French culture, revealing a playwright who can turn the standard boulevard play into something that does more than simply pander to its bourgeois audiences. It’s a balancing act that few playwrights – rare beasts such as Zeller’s peer Yasmina Reza or Alan Ayckbourn – can carry off with aplomb.
Zeller’s first English-language hit was The Father, which the Melbourne Theatre Company mounted in a fairly humdrum production by Damien Ryan that was saved by some remarkable performances, notably John Bell in the title role. A moving work about the effects of dementia, it swept award nominations in Paris, London and New York and was made into an Oscar-winning film starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman last year.
The MTC has followed up with Zeller’s play The Truth, again in a Hampton translation, which premiered in London in 2017. This work draws overtly from Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. Both plays follow the infidelities of two middle-class couples in which the husbands are best friends. In The Truth, Michel and Paul exercise their masculine competitiveness through regular games of tennis, whereas in Betrayal Robert and Jerry play squash. In both, the lies told are complicated by revelations of who knew what at which time.
Pinter’s play, however, has no pretensions to being a comedy and its subtexts are much more brutal. The loneliness and emptiness that inhabit every character are palpable, as is the undertow of violence that peeps through the polite surface of the dialogue. Robert’s casual admission of domestic violence, for instance, remains shocking: “It’s true I’ve hit Emma once or twice … I wasn’t inspired to do it from any moral viewpoint. I just felt like giving her a good bashing.”
There’s nothing so confronting in The Truth, which at its least interesting is merely a comic version of the same plot with the more uncomfortable bits lopped off.
The play feels much more profoundly French than The Father. It’s not only its premise, which stems from Voltaire’s notion that lying is only wrong when it does harm and is in fact a high virtue when it does good; it’s also how deeply embedded its form is in the French tradition of farce.
It begins with what seems to be a standard set-up for a comedy about marital infidelity with Michel (Stephen Curry) hurriedly getting dressed for a meeting after a daytime hotel room tryst with his best friend’s wife, Alice (Katrina Milosevic). Six months into their affair, Alice isn’t happy; they never get to spend any time together and she’s feeling guilty about deceiving her husband, Paul (Bert LaBonté).
Panicking that Alice might either break up with him or tell her husband, Michel agrees to cancel his meeting, telling his business partner that he’s sick. But when he arrives home, complaining of tiredness after a stressful day at work, his wife, Laurence (Michala Banas), reveals that she spoke to his business partner while she was out shopping, and the lie blows up, only to be replaced by another lie. The rest of the play is variations on this theme, as the questions around who knows – or who wants to know – the truth are complicated further and further in each scene.
The Truth premiered in France with the famed actor Pierre Arditi – a veteran of acclaimed productions of Molière and Feydeau – in the central role of the blustering philanderer Michel. Watching the French production online you can see subtle nods to traditional farce, such as the doors on either side in every scene. Everything is designed to focus on the performances, and here the cast’s skill – the practised finesse of their comic reveals, their precise emotional orchestrations – creates a sketch of lightly drawn shadows that hint at the bleaker subtexts.
It’s the bleakness, after all, that makes the comedy funny.
Sarah Giles’ direction attempts to semi-translate this form into an Australian context, with very middling results. Perhaps it’s simply that there is no Australian equivalent to the French bourgeoisie, with its particularly narcissistic sense of entitlement; certainly the Malcolm Turnbull-style “cultured Australian” aimed for in the performances is a bad fit. The result is a production that, while it bowls along pleasantly enough for 90 minutes, seems to be stumbling behind its supple text.
The production feels at once overdressed and underdetailed. Aside from a sense of erotic sparkle between the characters, which is palpably missing here, perhaps the quality most required in this highly verbal confection is finesse. To be fair, it’s difficult to find finesse in a process disrupted by the pandemic, with many rehearsals conducted over Zoom, as artistic director Brett Sheehy explained on its delayed opening night.
The stage is dominated by Stephen Curry as Michel, a man whose lack of moral courage is only matched by his lack of self-insight. He gaslights, prevaricates and transparently lies without compunction, but his manipulations – unlike those of the other characters – are also woefully transparent. Curry’s performance is big on broad physical comedy and – bizarrely, perhaps – low on the emotional truth that’s required to carry the text’s complexities. This might account for LaBonté’s muted performance as the stoically vengeful Paul, which is uncharacteristically single-note.
Marg Horwell’s set consists of a series of playful flats – walls, windows, a consulting room – which successively lift up to open out the stage as the play progresses and are adorned by stage furniture whirled on by stagehands as required. Although projected scene titles tell us the play is set in Paris, generic French-sounding music tinkles over all the scene changes as well and – perhaps because the blandly contemporary interiors don’t seem Parisian enough – one dialogue is played out in front of a night-time panorama of the Eiffel Tower, complete with fireworks.
It’s the kind of ham-fisted decision that characterises this show. It’s as if, conscious that something is awry in its cultural translation, the production overcompensates with handfuls of Gallic cliché. The Truth isn’t a great play, but it’s a fine work that deserves rather better than this.
The Truth plays at Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until July 17.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 3, 2021 as "Half-truth".
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