Aside from Broadway invasions, long-dead Greeks and Chekhov, it’s rare to see work by non-British playwrights in London. Florian Zeller is an exception. Not long ago, he was the enfant terrible of the French literary scene. A string of phenomenally successful – and often controversial – novels quickly turned the gifted youngster into a household name, his works stacked in bookshops next to Zola and his face a regular fixture on French talk shows. He wasn’t even 25.
But, he says: “Something happened, like a calling.” After being asked to write a libretto for an opera, Zeller found himself absorbed in the world of live performance, “this magical universe”. Before that, he never really went to the theatre, admitting he was much more of a reader than a theatregoer. “I never imagined that theatre would form such an important part of my life,” he says. But suddenly the solitary existence of the novelist no longer appealed and instead the collaborative world of theatre took hold. “You’re involved in an adventure that’s bigger than yourself. It’s an art that has no meaning unless it’s shared – with the artists, but with audiences as well.”
Although the shift to writing for the stage began over a decade ago and Zeller, now 36, had already won a couple of Moliere awards (France’s answer to the Oliviers), he had to wait until 2014 before his plays were noticed over here. But he captured the attention of the UK after Theatre Royal Bath commissioned Christopher Hampton to translate Zeller’s play The Father and, in the 18 months since its first performance, that attention has not wavered.
Hampton has so far been responsible for all the English translations of Zeller’s plays, but rather than being unwilling to put his reputation in another writer’s hands, he claims: “He’s a writer I greatly admire, and I had complete faith in him for translating me. The last production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in London blew me away. I know that he understands everything, he really feels everything.”
The partnership has worked so well that this month Zeller has three different plays on simultaneously in London. As well as The Father at the Duke of York’s Theatre and its companion piece The Mother at the Tricycle, his new comedy The Truth opens at the Menier Chocolate Factory. A London hat-trick is a feat matched by few writers, among them Agatha Christie, JB Priestley, Alan Ayckbourn and Tennessee Williams: not bad company for Zeller to keep.
The UK is all out of kilter – Zeller wrote The Mother in 2010, The Truth a year later and The Father in 2012. He doesn’t mind that we’re seeing his plays in a different order: “I like the disarrangement, I don’t think that there is an order to heed.” This is partly because he employs recurrent themes and techniques, but also because several of his plays work as companion pieces to each other. While The Truth is opening in London, its sequel – or opposite – is currently playing in Paris. Naturally, it’s called The Lie. “There are the same characters, it’s even the same story, but told from a different point of view. You get the answer to one of those plays through seeing the other, and vice versa.” Next, Zeller wants to write a play that will form “a kind of trilogy” with The Mother and The Father. “It would be called The Son and I hope that it will be created in England.”
But it was with The Father, a heartbreaking study of a man with dementia, that the UK first took notice. It was originally written for French actor Robert Hirsch, who was 87 at the time – “one of the reasons I was drawn to the subject [of dementia]” – but with the combination of Hampton’s elegant translation and Kenneth Cranham’s moving performance Zeller claims that the play has become quite English.
He dismisses the suggestion that it’s a play based on his own experiences. “I write in the way that one has a dream. It’s not as if, when you’re asleep, you say to yourself, ‘Right, this bit refers to that.’ It wasn’t until after I finished that I understood what it was about. I’m exaggerating a bit, but that’s almost the truth.” He does say that dementia isn’t completely alien to him – “my grandmother suffered from this illness” – but he insists that it isn’t important for audiences to know if he’s drawing on his own life. “What’s important is that the audience has the impression that I’m speaking from their experience.”
For a play about dementia, The Father is often funny, too. “Ludique” is how Zeller describes it – fun, playful, entertaining. But it’s a word that also cuts to the quick of what, for Zeller, theatre means. “We are playing. The actors are playing. The audience can’t ignore the fact that we are, like children, in the act of make believe. That’s what, for me, the word ‘playful’ means. The whole beauty of theatre exists in the ‘comme si’, the ‘as though’, the make believe.”
Q&A: Florian Zeller
What was your first job? Novelist. But is it a real job?
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Hurry up, life is long.
Who is your biggest influence? My fear.
If you hadn’t been a writer what would you have been? Astrophysicist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? I have a ring that brings me luck. As it is not the right size, I keep it in my pocket: I wouldn’t want to lose it.
It is on this knife-edge between honesty and falsehood that Zeller’s plays sit. By focusing on a man with dementia in The Father and a woman seemingly in the throes of psychosis in The Mother, Zeller places narrative control – or lack thereof – in the hands of deeply unreliable narrators. It is a duality and duplicity that Zeller is aware of. “What I seek to do,” he says, “is to instil an element of doubt. I try to construct little labyrinths in which the audience member tries to find where they are. You hunt down the truth, but as soon as you think you’re able to grab hold of it, it takes on another form and it slips through your fingers.” And for Zeller, it is not possible to escape the themes of truth and lies in theatre. “The theatre of truth is the eternal theme of theatre, isn’t it? It is the place where every single person is unmasked, stripped bare.”
What makes The Truth stand apart from The Mother and The Father is that it is much more overtly comic. Taking a quote from Voltaire as a starting point – “Lying is only a vice when it harms; when it does good, it is a very great virtue” – Zeller wrote a comedy of manners about “a liar whom everyone lies to”. It was, he claims, purely an exercise in distracting himself and in distracting the audience: “For me laughing is something profound. It’s not less serious than anything else. Writing a drama or writing a comedy, I think that it’s exactly the same thing. It’s only the flavour that changes.”
It’s not just the flavour of his plays that has changed in the past 10 years. Now that he’s writing for theatre, the cocky assurance that penetrated his novels – listless young men sleeping with different girls each night, satires on religious tolerance – seems to have yielded to equivocation. It’s because, Zeller claims, theatre is not the place for that kind of certainty. “To tell you the truth, I’m not very sensitive to political theatre. For me, theatre is above all the place for questions and not for answers. For doubt, more than certainty and conviction.”
CV Florian zeller
Born: Paris, 1979
Landmark productions: The Father, Ustinov Studio, Bath, 2014, The Mother, Tricycle Theatre, London, 2016, The Truth, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 2016
Awards: Moliere awards for The Mother (2011) and The Father (2014)
The Father runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London , until March 26. The Truth runs at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory  until May 7