The Theatreguide.London Review
Menier Chocolate Factory Spring 2016; Wyndham's Theatre Summer 2016
Consider the possibilities of rewriting a classic drama as farce.
That's essentially what French playwright Florian Zeller (author of recent London hits The Father and The Mother) has done with The Truth.
And once you get past the surprise of watching a dramatic premise go off in an unexpectedly comic direction, it is a whole lot of fun.
Zeller's starting point is the same as Harold Pinter's Betrayal. Michel is having an affair with his best friend's wife, and all seems under control.
When Alice begins to express unhappiness with the affair, Michel plays broken-hearted lover and guilt-trips her into submission. When Michel's wife Laurence starts asking questions, he plays outraged innocent and bullies her into apologetic silence.
But just suppose that Paul, the cuckolded husband, knows about the affair and hasn't said anything. As Pinter spotted, that complicates things both tactically and morally.
Does Paul now have more power than Michel just because he knows and Michel doesn't know that he knows? And in an odd way, is holding that advantage as much a betrayal of his friend as Michel's affair?
Let's go further. Suppose Alice knows that Paul knows, and hasn't told Michel. Suppose that Paul has known from the beginning of the affair, and Alice has known that he knows, and he has known that she knows he knows.
Suppose Laurence has also known, and everyone else has known that she knows, and only Michel has been left out of the loop.
Hell, while we're at it, suppose that Paul and Laurence have been having it off, and indeed got to the adultery game first, and everyone but Michel has known. Who's winning now?
I didn't give you a spoiler alert before that list of suppositions, and for one big reason. Some or all of them may not be true.
In a life game in which knowledge is power, claiming to have knowledge – or to have had knowledge – can be as effective a weapon, and as fertile a source of comedy, as actually having it.
Florian Zeller's The Father and The Mother both kept the audience off balance because not everything we saw with our own eyes could be trusted. There he had a serious purpose, showing us a key character's distorted experience of reality.
In The Truth the audience can't be sure that anything we are told is true, and that's where the comedy lies.
Poor Michel, who began the play with the confidence of not only knowing what was going on but of controlling it, is battered about by so many revelations and claimed revelations that neither he nor we can be absolutely sure of anything. And that turns out to be very funny.
Directed with a sure comic hand by Lindsay Posner, Alexander Hanson takes Michel through so many shocks that he begins to look physically battered, staggering around glassy-eyed like a punch-drunk fighter.
Robert Portal's Paul adds to the comedy by making clear that, whether all (or any) of what the character says is true, being the only one who knows if it is gives him a security and power that allow him to balance Michel's confusion with unruffled calm.
Both Frances O'Connor as Alice and Tanya Franks as Laurence have the fun of playing characters who seem much simpler than they turn out to be, retaining an enigmatic unknowability that nicely brings us all the way back to Pinter.
Actually, it probably helps if you make yourself forget about Pinter, or don't know Betrayal to begin with, because then you can give yourself over fully to the naughty enjoyment of watching the metaphoric pratfalls of a man with the audacity of thinking he knows what's going on repeatedly having the carpet comically pulled out from under him.
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Review - The Truth - Menier Chocoalte Factory Theatre 2016