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Posts Tagged ‘Florian Zeller’

French Playwright Florian Zeller’s work has become a staple of London’s theatre in the last five years. Six of his play’s have had productions here in that period, all translated by Christopher Hampton. This seventh is the third in his family trilogy, following The Mother & The Father which, both first seen in this theatre, we saw the other way round to the order in which they were written. Though I liked the other three, those two stood out for me, and this is a very welcome companion piece.

The son, Nicolas, a teenager, seems badly affected by his parents separation. His dad Pierre has a new wife and baby son and he asks to live with them after his mother Anne struggles to cope when she discovers he hasn’t been going to school. If anything, it’s even more of a challenge at his father’s and he spirals into depression and despair. What at first seems unhappiness at the split proves to be severe depression.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling it, but it is a harrowing journey that shows the damage that can be done at a vulnerable point in a young person’s life, and the agony of the parents who have to deal with it. It doesn’t take sides, and Zeller doesn’t mess with your head as much as he did in The Father, about dementia, and The Mother, who struggles with empty nesting, but he does have a trick or two up his sleeve.

Michael Longhurst’s sensitive production features a career defining performance by John Light, at first unsympathetic, but whose pain you come to feel intensely as he lets go, and a stunning performance that oozes authenticity by Laurie Kynaston as Nicolas. Though the male leads carry the emotional weight of the play, there are excellent contributions too from Amanda Abbington as Nicolas’ mum Anne, who struggles to cope with it all, and Amaka Okafor as Pierre’s new partner Sofia, torn between supporting her man in his support of his son and focusing on their new life and new child.

It’s not an easy watch, but it’s an insightful piece which rewards you with a sense of understanding and appreciation of mental health, as the other two plays had done, and the impact marital separation can have on children.

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This is the fifth Florian Zeller play produced in London in just over three years, with a sixth scheduled before four years are up – no other playwright has achieved that, I suspect, though they were written over eight years. This French playwright has really caught the eye of both producers and audiences.

The previous four were in two stylistic pairs – The Father & The Mother and The Truth & The Lie – with this one closest to the former (as it appears will the sixth one, as it’s called The Son). They’ve all been translated by Christopher Hampton and the common feature is their inventive structure – he likes to mess with your head – and length (under ninety minutes), oh, and two word titles (with the exception of this one!). I loved the first three, but I think I might already be tiring of the somewhat smug cleverness, as I eventually did with Stoppard.

This one features an elderly couple, wonderfully played by Jonathan Pryce and Eileen Atkins, and their two daughters. We’re in their country home outside Paris, but just about everything else is left for you to work out. At various points, either or both parents might be dead, ghosts or in other characters’ imagination. The themes are love, grief, death, dependency, dementia (again), secrets, legacy and the obligations of children to their parents. I was intrigued and attentive, but it was too obtuse and left me unsatisfied.

Jonathan Kent’s production is very gentle, poetic and beautiful, with a lovely design by Anthony Ward. It’s superbly performed, with extraordinary chemistry between Pryce and Atkins, and fine support from Amanda Drew and Anna Madeley and nice cameos from Lucy Cohu and James Hillier. It has a very melancholic feel and works well at an emotional level, but on this occasion that wasn’t enough for me, I’m afraid.

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The four Florian Zeller plays we’ve seen here in London in the last few years have been in a different order to how they were written / first produced. We’ve had The Father, The Mother, The Truth and now The Lie in that order, but The Mother, The Truth, The Father and The Lie is how they were written. The significance of this is that The Lie follows The Truth, 18 months later rather than the three years after, and this, in my view, affects its welcome. I felt it was more of the same and I left the theatre disappointed.

The Lie concerns a couple, Paul & Alice, and their friends, another couple, Michel & Laurence (female). It’s a who’s-having-an-affair-with-whom concoction full of false trails and even a false ending, which to be honest I found irritating. It’s clever, but that’s about all. I felt I was being manipulated by a writer for his enjoyment rather than mine.

The whole thing is set in Paul & Alice’s apartment and we don’t know how much time has passed between scenes. It’s expertly performed by real-life husband and wife Alexander Hanson and Samantha Bond, supported by Tony Gardner and Alexandra Gilbreath, all of whom who also seemed to be enjoying it more than me.

There’s a fine, elegant apartment setting by Anna Fleischle and Lindsay Posner’s staging works like clockwork, but I’m afraid it left me cold. Cleverness for its own sake, it just seemed pointless. I have enjoyed this other three plays and I hope we have better to come as I’d identified Zeller as a real find. Hopefully a blip rather than a burst bubble.

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Over 150 shows were candidates for my four award-less awards, with Best New Play the difficult category this year, so lets start with that.

BEST NEW PLAY – LOVE – National Theatre

Over a third of the sixty-five candidates were worthy of consideration, which makes 2016 both prolific and high quality in terms of new plays. Hampstead had a particularly good year with Rabbit Hole, Lawrence After Arabia, Labyrinth and the epic iHo all in contention. The Almeida gave us three, with Boy leading the trio that included They Drink It In The Congo and Oil because of its importance and impact. The Globe’s two Kneehigh shows – 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips on the main stage & The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – both delighted. Two more Florian Zeller plays, The Mother and The Truth, followed The Father and proved he’s a real talent to watch. The visit of Isango again, this time with play with songs A Man of Good Hope was a treat.

The Arcola gave us Kenny Morgan, which showed us the inspiration for Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the Donmar a fascinating One Night in Miami, the Orange Tree hosted the superbly written The Rolling Stone and Dante or Die’s site-specific Handle With Care had an epic sweep in its self storage unit setting. Two comedies shone above all others – James Graham’s Monster Raving Loony and Mischief Theatre’s The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, the only West End non-subsidised contender! The Royal Court provided the visceral Yen and The Children, my runner-up, another fine play by Lucy Kirkwood whose Chimerica was my 2013 winner. Of the National’s three, The Flick and Sunset at the Villa Thalia came earlier in the year, but it was LOVE at the end which made me sad and angry but blew me away with more emotional power than any other. Important theatre which I desperately hope many more people will see.

BEST REVIVAL / ADAPTATION of a play – The Young Vic’s YERMA & the National’s LES BLANCS

I’ve added ‘adaptation’ as a few steered a long way from their source, and Les Blancs could be considered a new play, but it’s just new to us.

Though I saw forty-four in this category, less than a quarter made the short-list. The best Shakespeare revival was undoubtedly A Winter’s Tale at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. As well as Les Blancs, the National staged excellent revivals of The Deep Blue Sea and Amadeus, the Donmar chipped in with the thoroughly entertaining comedy Welcome Home, Captain Fox and in Kingston The Rose revived Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, probably the best use ever of this difficult space. Beyond that I was struggling, except to choose between the two winners, which I found I couldn’t and shouldn’t do.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – GROUNDHOG DAY – Old Vic Theatre

Has a shortlist ever been so short? Only twenty contenders but only three in contention. The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse was great fun and the NYMT’s Brass visiting Hackney Empire hugely impressive, but it was achieving the seemingly impossible by turning Groundhog Day into a hugely successful musical than won the day, though it was sad to see it head stateside, presumably in pursuit of greater commercial gain, after such a short run. I know it will be back, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about a British theatrical institution and a whole load of British talent being used as a Broadway try-out. 

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – HALF A SIXPENCE – Chichester Festival Theatre / Novello Theatre

Fifty percent more revivals (twenty-nine) than new musicals is a lower proportion than usual, but a winner has never been clearer. 

The Menier gave us a transatlantic transfer of a great Into the Woods and what may prove to be the definitive She Loves Me, but both the Union and Walthamstow’s Rose & Crown provided twice as many quality revivals, with the latter successfully climbing higher peaks with more challenging shows for a small space – Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, Out of This World, Babes in Arms and Howard Goodall’s The Kissing Dance. The Union’s contributions included The Fix and Children of Eden and a trio of cheeky, fun nights with Bad Girls, Moby Dick and Soho Cinders. The Southerland-Tarento partnership provided a brilliant revival of Ragtime and the welcome European premiere, and superb production of, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (which was also too old for me to categorise as ‘New’). A little gem came and went ever so quickly when the Finborough revived Alan Price’s lovely Andy Capp in it’s Sun-Tue slot on the set of another play. BRING IT BACK! Despite all this fringe and off west end quality, it was the Chichester transfer of an old warhorse with a new book, new songs, thrilling staging, stunning choreography, gorgeous design and terrific ensemble which propelled itself to the top of this category.

That’s it for another year, then. Homelessness, childlessness, timelessness, colonialism and love amongst the working class. There’s a theme there somewhere…..

 

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This is the third play by French playwright Florian Zeller that we’ve had in London in less than twelve months, all translated by Christopher Hampton. I worried when the second, The Mother, was stylistically similar to the first, The Father, that he might be a one-trick pony, even though I admired both. Fear not, the third is very different and quite possibly the best.

The first scene introduces us to Michel and his best friend’s wife Alice in a hotel room. They are having an affair. What unfolds over 90 minutes in seven scenes in six locations, each involving just two of the characters, is the unravelling of their infidelity, taking many twists and turns, keeping you guessing until the final moments. It’s a masterly piece of writing and it’s very funny. To say any more would spoil it. 

Lindsay Posner’s staging is as masterly as the writing and Lizzie Clachan’s design is as clever as the play’s structure, changing location with the slide of a screen. Alexander Hanson as Michel is onstage throughout, carrying the play, and he does so brilliantly, but the other three – Frances O’Connor, Tanya Franks and Robert Portal – are terrific too.

Apparently there are six more plays we haven’t seen, including a companion piece to this, unsurprisingly called The Lie. I can’t wait. Three plays in and I’m convinced he’s a find.

This is why I go to the theatre. I’ll be very surprised if this doesn’t follow The Father into the West End. Unmissable.

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French playwright Florian Zeller’s only other play to be produced here, also translated by Christopher Hampton, was called The Father, who had dementia. In this one The Mother is an empty nester whose mental health is deteriorating. It’s just as clever, though stylistically a little too close, and just as insightful.

In eighty minutes, five or six scenes are each repeated twice, with changes. The Mother is missing her son and leads an unfulfilled life without him (she also has a daughter but her relationship with her is clearly nowhere near as strong). Her husband arrives home, she serves breakfast to him & her son (who has returned during the night), she tries to persuade her son to go out with her, his girlfriend arrives, she’s in hospital after an overdose…….but each scene in a pair has a different outcome and you don’t know what is real and what is in her head. Like The Father, it’s disorientating, sometimes uncomfortable, occasionally shocking and at times funny.

It’s set in a rectangular white room with white furniture, which creates a clinical laboratory-like feel. The scenes are short (but don’t seem as short as The Father), sometimes broken by a curtain and sometimes a light fade. Gina McKee is superb as Anna, changing mood continually, and has excellent support from Richard Clothier as her husband, William Postlethwaite as her son and Frances McNamee as his girlfriend.

It’s very much a companion piece for The Father. I liked it, but now I’d very much like to see a different side of Zeller, who is clearly a bit of a find.

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A play about dementia. Depressing? Well, yes – as people get older, it’s often their greatest fear, more so than any physical condition – but its also insightful and not as heavy as you might think.

What’s so clever about Florian Zeller’s play, translated by Christopher Hampton, is that by messing with your head you get to peep inside the head of the demetia sufferer and it helps you understand what it must be like to experience this condition. It starts very straightforwardly, but soon becomes disorientating. Andre’s daughter Anne may or may not have a husband, may or may not be moving to London, may or may not have a sister. Our confusion parallels Andre’s confusion and we begin to understand, and dread, his predicament.

In a series of short, sharp scenes we see the condition deteriorate through the eyes of its victim. Characters and their back stories change and the room in which it is set changes as he moves home. It’s a very original way of conveying the agony of the condition for both the sufferer and their family. The final scene when Andre is in a rest home is devastating. It’s beautifully written / translated, with every moment contributing to the story and it’s extraordinary how much understanding you accumulate in less than 90 minutes. There is humour as well as frustration and sadness to lighten the tone without disrespect.

James McDonald’s direction is very sympathetic to the subject matter, as are the six excellent performances. As Andre, Kenneth Cranham navigates the decline very delicately and movingly. Clare Skinner gives a nuanced performance as Anne, full of love for her father whilst struggling to balance the demands of caring with her need to live her own life.

A subject rarely spoken of is given a thoughtful and illuminating presentation, something sometimes only theatre can so.

 

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