Sunday, 10 July 2016

Theatre night:The Truth

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practice to deceive!"

I used to go to the theatre quite often. Donmar, Almeida, National, lots of those ornate yet uncomfortable Victorian ones in 'Theatreland'. Recent years, for some reason, it's fallen off. But when my friend Kathy asked if I'd like to see The Truth at Wydnham's I took one look at the reviews (5 star) and another at the price (£2 via a discount scheme she was in) and jumped at it.

So far had I fallen behind that I'd not even heard of the highly acclaimed, and still under 40, French playwright Florian Zeller who'd written the thing. Such a success had the Christopher Hampton translation been at the Menier Chocolate Factory it had been relocated to the West End.

It certainly got off to an 'interesting', if not entirely intended, start. The opening scene showed Alice (Frances O'Connor) and Michel (Alexander Hanson) in bed together. As he entered the stage and the lights dimmed he pulled his pants down only to immediately pull them up again under the covers. Unfortunately, or perhaps intentionally, he'd left something sticking out. So, a bum and willy, and the play wasn't even a minute old.

It was interesting enough, however, that this accidental flash was soon forgotten. We soon learnt that Alice was the wife of Michel's best friend Paul (Robert Portal) and that Michel himself had been married for two decades to Laurence (Tanya Franks). He was, in Billy Bragg's words, betraying the myth of trust.

I'd read the play described as a mille-feuille which is a 16th century French pastry whose literal translation is 'thousand leaves'. Well, there certainly weren't quite that many layers of story but there certainly were twists and turns a plenty. A veritable helter skelter of emotion as couples argued, lied, played innocent, set accusation against counter accusation, and indulged in games of passive-aggressive derring-do with the stakes their own future happiness.

As Michel, Alexander Hanson was on stage, and thankfully clothed after the initial wardrobe malfunction, for the entirety of the production. This made it, obviously, more his story than any of the others. I'm not sure if the constant sweating was down to spending ninety minutes under the lights on a hot July evening or if it was part of his character, intended to betray raw anxiety, nervousness, and fear.

Either way it worked. He was the emotional heart, or void, of the whole endeavour. A perpetually perspiring blame machine who, though no more venal or manipulative than anyone else, lacked a long term strategy and therefore was always nearer the precipice than the others.

O'Connor is a very attractive lady and I wonder if this, perhaps, made me forgive her some of the hamminess in her portrayal of Alice. Then again, as she was playing the part of someone living a lie perhaps it was intentional.

Portal and Franks got the lesser parts but ably supported the key performers and were vital to the arc of the storyline. A scene in which Portal's Paul pours Michel glass after glass of whisky was particularly delicious. Each drop of the hard stuff another nail in Michel's future love life.

I'd expected a brutal, eviscerating, raw emotional drama in the style of Neil La Bute but Zeller clearly has a lighter touch than that. I laughed more than I expected. Kathy thought it could've been funnier but for me, if anything, it could've been more serious.

Like La Bute there was no interval so you were fully immersed in the rollercoaster of the drama from the word go. The set consisted of white hotel rooms and equally white front rooms. It was very hard to tell the difference and I think that was perhaps intentional. Helping, along with some of the plummier accents, to signpost that this was very much a middle class comedy of manners. Had this been set amongst the British working class I think things may've been far more explicit. Verging on Eastenders, even Jeremy Kyle, territory.

But the overwhelming desire not to lose face was, for these characters, as much of an emotional motor as the desire to keep their families together whilst not forgoing their extra marital proclivities.

It was odd that despite being in English the characters kept their French names and could even be seen reading Le Monde and talking of trips to Bordeaux and Chartres. It didn't harm the play but I wonder if they thought Leeds and Watford didn't have the same emotional cache or if Zeller wanted to remind us all that this was a play written by a Frenchman.

A very talented Frenchman at that. I'm glad I went. I was whisked along with the story from start to finish. Tears of laughter may not have been rolling down my cheek but it made me chuckle several times and I even cared what happened to the characters. I might have to start going to the theatre more often.

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