FringeReview UK 2016
A third Florian Zeller play in a year, after The Father, The Mother and The Lie – this play’s complement – all translated by Christopher Hampton. Wyndham’s production boasts Lindsay Posner’s direction, brings a tight quartet of actors with clinical minimalism and moveable white elements by Lizzie Clachan. Matthew Scott’s music too is liminally elegant, an edge of melody.
Lindsay Posner brings a third Florian Zeller play in a year to London, after The Father and The Mother. The Lie – this play’s complement – and others will follow – all translated by Christopher Hampton. Wyndham’s production boasts a tight quartet of actors with clinical minimalism and moveable white elements by Lizzie Clachan, doing service for hotel bedroom kitchen, medical consulting room, tennis area. Matthew Scott’s music too is liminally elegant, an edge of melody.
With The Father’s memorable shifts questioning just whose reality and dementia we’re witnessing, it would be hard to burden an edgy comedy with such expectations. Zeller though shows a humour consistent with that paly, and a like willingness to play with perception – the way Clachan’s set shifts and morphs under our eyes. On one level it derives from Faydeau farce, on another glints of Pinter’s Betrayal – Zeller’s avowed model – are given a soufflé treatment. There’s darkness here but it’s kept at bay.
The Father’s protagonist André is succeeded by another conceptually compromised character through whose eyes we see the paly: Alexander Hanson’s Michel is always on stage, and there’s always two people. This simple doubles effect allows duplicity: any third or fourth would break it. Zeller’s more interested in what the form does to his characters and in that sense too he harks back to Faydeau.
Hanson’s Michel is first discovered having sex with Alice (elegant, ardent but guilt-ridden Frances O’Connor) who’s his best friend’s wife. He’s then covering his tracks from wife Laurence (Tanya franks) who seems content to paly with his bluster. Hanson’s Michel is required to resort to key phrases, about his friend Paul’s losing his job (though up for another) and various repeat phrases explode perhaps a little strenuously in the farceur’s pattern. Subtle it ain’t, though I wonder if Hanson needs to press the pedal through the floor: its clearly a directorial choice.
The play unravels to a hotel after Alice delivers an ultimatum, Michel pretending to be her aunt, and the predictable fall-out when finally the two men confront each other. Paul knows everything and confesses he’s been sleeping with Lawrence. At this point you wonder of course how much he’s reacting on the hoof, and indeed pretending to lose at tennis (does he really) he has a surprise rally to deliver to Lawrence through the medium of his friend, who seems everyone’s dupe. The denouement with Michel and Lawrence involves double bluffs and a haunted look.
Robert Portal’s apparently bluff Paul exudes quiet brutal strategist, oozing pragamatism and unflappable urbanity, as indeed both O’Connor does dealing with the noisy Michel as Hanson’s unwitting and unknowing cipher forces audiences to refract everything through his eyes.
What’s masterly about the structure, a very different one from The Father, is how imperatives are handed to Michel who then has no idea of the effect he’s having on the recipients. His oblivious lack of self-knowledge despite all evidence wields a farceur’s resource, full of high bombast and knowing audience hilarity. As he accuses his friend of disloyalty for not telling him he knew his wife was with Michel, or Alice herself for not letting him know, or his wife Lawrence for joining in the conspiracy we see the philanderer appalled at others’ refusal to allow him a grandstand to his own imagined omniscience.
Volume aside, Hanson delivers frantic timing and hard-paced farce, and the bluster is superbly timed. O’Connor provides an elegant foil in mainly earlier scenes, mixing her guilt with anxiety, desire (she’d like to see more of Michel) and at the end cool pragmatism. Franks’ Laurence seems always ready to spring shut on the luckless protagonist, but holds off: by contrast like Paul’s Portal she seems more in control of both herself and her marriage. Her counterpart in Portal’s hands conveys too a flicker of reined-in menace, bluff urbanity that like Franks waits to pounce. Indeed it’s the subtext between these characters in leaked messages Hanson is expected to deliver, their unstated compatability – and that of O’Connor’s and Portal’s true relationship – that probe exactly what and who the dupes are.
This is as good a machine for portraying infidelity as we’re likely to see. When Laurence says truthfully that she hopes that she’d not reveal if she were having a affair, Zeller’s codes of truth and untruth are finally bared. Zeller quotes Voltaire’s scepticism about truth-telling and – in his play – is faithful to it. Crisp comic timing heightens the timelessness of that sentiment, permanently unfashionable, perennially worth reviving.