The Truth (Menier Chocolate Factory)
The latest play from French playwright Florian Zeller arrives in the capital
Whatever the truth is, they're not telling it in French playwright Florian Zeller's version of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, the "Joan Bakewell" play, the one where the wife's lover is her husband's best friend.
Zeller, expertly translated by Christopher Hampton, and supported by the Theatre Royal, Bath, has made waves in the past year or so with The Father and its companion piece The Mother, whose eponymous lead characters are studies in dementia and maternal desolation.
Sure enough, The Truth has a companion play, too, The Lie, in which the same four characters, the two married couples, replay the action of The Truth from a different perspective; it might have been a good idea to play these two corresponding pieces in tandem.
It's all beginning to look slightly diagrammatic and calculated, much as I enjoyed this play. Alice (Frances O'Connor), a doctor, and Michel (Alexander Hanson), a businessman, supposedly attending a meeting in Bordeaux, are having an affair ("You haven't seen my socks, have you?"); he's been married to Laurence (Tanya Franks), a teacher, for twenty years, and his afternoon in the Paris hotel alibi is under siege.
His tennis partner Paul (Robert Portal), Alice's husband, has rung Laurence to find out where he is. And next thing we know, Paul is phoning Alice on her mobile to ask how the old aunt she's visiting is getting along; Michel, of course, has to stand in for the aunt as he's still, as it were, looking for his socks.
So it goes for seven short scenes over ninety minutes, Hanson's Michel screwing himself (and Alice) into a rapture of denial and desperation; Portal's Paul – who's out of work, and Michel's tennis partner – stone-walling in the locker room before quietly delivering a Pinteresque thunderbolt; and Franks's Laurence is nursing some deep, unstated sadness.
In The Father, Zeller broke all rules of theatricality in transferring the confusion in the old man's mind into ours, and then messing with the identity of the other characters. Here, we never really know if the truth is a lie or not, or whether indeed living with a lie is an easier, or more acceptable, option than facing reality. Zeller's great skill is in expressing these semantic and philosophical conundrums in theatrical terms.
The dialogue quivers with uncertainty, cover-up, sadness and regret. There's not a decisive sense of resolution and exposure as there is in the backwards chronology of Betrayal. But there's a similar moral and emotional ambiguity, and Lindsay Posner's fluent and beautifully acted production, on a chic grey design of sliding panels and smooth edges by Lizzie Clachan, serves up a Parisian bonne bouche laced with poison.
The Truth runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7 May.