Florian Zeller’s hat trick of exceptional plays – The Father, The Mother, and now The Truth (just transferred to the West End)

NOMINATED FOR BEST NEW COMEDY – OLIVIER AWARDS 2017

Seeing Florian Zeller’s The Truth UK premiere at the delectably named Menier Chocolate Factory has to be a theatre highlight of 2016 for me. What’s not to love about a theatre which used to be a chocolate factory? It recently premiered Sheridan Smith’s Funny Girl, now on the West End. In fact it’s just been announced The Truth will also be showing at The Wyndham’s for a 10 week run.

Menier Chocolate Factory is only five minutes from London Bridge. You walk through the restaurant and descend to the theatre box office and cafe/bar, selling gin and tonic ice cream… The theatre seats are long comfy benches with plenty of leg room. We settled down with our glasses of prosecco included in the ticket price expecting a treat, and weren’t disappointed.

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The audience was generally on the mature side: a lady next to me nudging her partner with a chuckle at particularly hilarious lines, whilst a lady in front couldn’t contain her continual chortles. The laughing generally was loud and happy. Unsurprisingly Zeller does not-so-straightforward comedy just as brilliantly as the harrowing yet witty complexities of The Father and The Mother. It was by no means a straightforward play, of course, bearing Zeller’s now familiar signature of clever repetition and unstable meaning. Naming the play “The Truth” when in all of Zeller’s pieces you grapple with the words and wonder if they are true or false, real or imagined, was a joke in itself. The actors mock it throughout: “The truth is something philosophers can’t even find…”

Here it morphs and muddles between the lives of two couples. Michele (Alexander Hanson)  is having an affair with his best friend’s wife Alice (Frances O’Connor). He seems a master in deceit – a manipulative, skilful fabricator of untruths, twisting things cleverly to his advantage. Or at least, that is what he very obviously tries to do. It gradually transpires that Michele is in fact far from in control of the situation. Does he in fact have any idea what is actually going on?

In a memorable line he wheedles that if couples told the truth to each other all of the time, there would be none left and it would pretty much be the end of civilisation. Secretly, this reminds me of a recent episode of Made In Chelsea (no judgement please) where blonde Sam, caught in an untruth, insists to seemingly staunchly honest Lucy that all couples tell white lies to each other and it’s perfectly normal. (Spoiler alert, it turns out a few episodes later that his own girlfriend lied to him, and he is less than pleased about it.) If lying is motivated out of a desire to be kind and spare someone’s feelings, is it fine and morally acceptable? Or should there be truth telling at all times? Michele hilariously promises to his wife Laurence (Tanya Franks) to be a “better liar” – as apparently the best way forward is to construct a more believable web of deceit for everyone to get tangled in. Solid Paul (Robert Portal) seems initially a figure of pity who Michele deliberately loses to at tennis, despite being the better tennis player. Or so he believes. It turns out two can play at that game.

The Truth is beautifully neat and unravels layers of seemingly simple shattering deceit, running 90 minutes straight without interval. All the players wear masks of exceptional poker faces, the set is minimalist – the anonymous hotel room they escape to for a weekend away “looks exactly the same” as the one they have left. The identical hotel rooms, the display of marriage, of best friendship, a successful career or nose-diving from Financial Director into unemployment, are all blank surfaces for the intricacies of untruths. Despite Michele’s appreciation of fibbery, it seems to be on the receiving end of any kind of duplicity still hurts. Outrageous. Unforgivable? Perhaps not when all involved could be mirrors of each other, dancers swapping partners… Whether they will finish in the same places is probably something I should let you find out for yourselves.

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King Lear. Guess how much I love you? A dangerous game

  • Royal Exchange theatre, Manchester
  • Now at Birmingham Repertory theatre until 28th May
  • Directed by Michael Buffong

Don Warrington is a stately and commanding King Lear. He has the gravelly voice of a king which is reminiscent of Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore tones. The impressiveness of Warrington’s stage presence is teamed with a confused childishness. The play opens with Lear demanding each of his three daughters to articulate how much they each love him, in order to determine the portion of his kingdom they will receive. It is a painful sort of childishness, and seeing a comical, youthful Don Warrington afterwards in a Rising Damp video it is hard to reconcile the two faces. Shakespeare’s scene feels like a rather more sinister version of the children’s book Guess How Much I Love You?, where Little Nutbrown Hare and Big Nutbrown Hare affectionately try to gesture towards how much they love each other (“I love you to the moon, and back”). They reach towards the infinite and inexpressible in their efforts to embody an emotion which can feel unconditional, limitless – and so can never really be expressed fully using the finite source of language, or contained completely within the realms of words. These hares may well be more clued up on love than Lear is. Of course, Lear’s demands are entirely one way. Surely giving a kingdom is enough in return.

Cordelia’s response, I love you as a child should, shows a distaste for a performance in courtly rhetoric for reward and self gain – the promise of property and wealth. Her refusal to give a self-interested pitch is in itself an expression of selfless daughterly devotion but meets only with disgrace and disownment from her father. Pepter Lunkuse’s performance brings me fresh respect for the strong female character Cordelia. She refuses to gratify her father’s vanity (“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth”), respectfully declines Burgundy’s regrets over refusing her (“that respect and fortunes are his love, I shall not be his wife”). And later leads an army to her father’s defence. One of my favourite lines in the play comes from Cordelia: “If for I want that glib and oily art to speak and purpose not – since what I well intend, I’ll do ‘t before I speak”. How do you convey this virtue of honest silence in a performance? Conveying the strength of this character in a form which is of course dependant on the spoken word is pretty special to see. The proof is in the action rather than the word. Cordelia’s words make me wonder how we measure performance and merit in the modern world – is it too much based on how well we express ourselves, in interviews, in meetings, in interaction with our peers? What about what we actually do? Is this the best way of recognising value, in oneself and in others?

Cordelia steps graciously down from the raised stage where the three chairs stand, whilst Lear throws his crown down on to the map of his realm and the two slippery Dukes kneel before him in feigned obedience. Lear has just thrown away his power and security and even his Fool can see it – he is like a snail giving away his shell and being left with just his horns without a case. Lear is unanchored, disconnected from himself and seems to have cast aside those who truly care for him and deserve to be held dear – Cordelia and his faithful servant the Earl of Kent  – who in fact never truly leaves, staying in disguise (Lear seemingly utterly fooled by a mere hood over the face) whilst Cordelia returns from France with an army upon hearing her father is in danger.

The unreliability of these linguistic tokens  is clear not just from this opening scene and its consequences, but also from the storyline of Edmund (Fraser Ayres) and Edgar (Alfred Enoch, from Harry Potter). This manipulation begins as Edmund waves around a letter, apparently from his brother, plotting the murder of their father Gloucester (“if it be nothing I won’t need spectacles to read it”). The later eye gauging scene is suitably gruesome, with squeamish audience members hiding their faces as an eye ball is ceremoniously thrown off stage, splatting in a wobbly white smear on the floor.

Miltos Yerolemou (from The Danish Girl) is adorable as the Fool, gambolling round with a painted white face throwing out gems of wisdom. The line that he is dead is easily missed, not as dramatically satisfying perhaps as Edmund’s demise, which is dismissed as a mere “trifle” in the tragic midst of royal deaths at the end of the play. Lear’s howl of “How” filling the theatre gives me shivers, his mourning over his youngest daughter’s body is awful to watch.

If I had a complaint it would be only that the Royal Exchange’s theatre space on this occasion was incredibly, snooze-inducingly warm! – probably not a result of the candlelight and atmospheric burning sconces, but possibly the stage lights heating up above? In any case, it somewhat changed my reaction to the scene where Lear is soaked in the storm (a triumph of lighting, sound and music) – which left me dreaming instead that a little cold water would in fact be very refreshingly welcome.

Since Lear dramatises the failure of leadership and collapse of single united kingly power and control, it is interesting that the tragedy is proving such a popular play to perform in this the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death. Maybe there is a political statement in there somewhere. No doubt it will continue with the performance of Lear by Glenda Jackson (a quarter of a century after she left acting for politics), which is scheduled for later this year at the Old Vic.