Florian Zeller is the golden boy of the British theatre scene at the moment, with the French playwright seeing three of his plays on London stages so far this year. The latest, The Truth, is a comedy with a simple premise: Michel is having an affair with Alice, the wife of his best friend, Paul. The dialogue is tight, but the plot seems slightly predictable. We think we know how this one will go. We see Michel deceive Paul and his own wife, Laurence, as he and Alice plan to spend a night away together. However, it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t going to be a typical comedy about infidelity. Zeller uses our expectations against us, tricking the audience as deftly as the characters trick each other. The writing is whip-smart, twisting back and forth in a tangled web of misinformation, leaving Michel sweaty, uncomfortable and slightly out of breath.
The Truth has a real moral dilemma at its heart – one that extends far beyond the world of the characters. The ideas of truth and honesty are picked apart and left bare, gaping with holes we hadn’t noticed before. The clever thing about this play is the way it reflects our own morality back at us. It is unsettling – and what we see isn’t entirely black and white. Though we may not have been involved in complex affairs or deceived our best friends, everyone who has ever told a lie or indeed told the truth (as both can be as damning as each other), will have cause to think on their actions before this play draws to its conclusion.
Lizzie Clachan’s design is perfect for the play: the minimalist chic effectively evokes an upper-class Parisian life; the sliding doors add to the sense of smoke-and-mirrors deception, as well as representing the way the couples’ lives constantly overlap. A table in the hotel where Alice and Michel meet for sex becomes Michel and Laurence’s kitchen table in a swift scene change. There are many things they share, and it feels very much like this revelation is hot on the heels of each scene.
Alexander Hanson gives an excellent performance as Michel, slipping from naïve cocksureness to guilt to outrage in a journey that sees him wrung dry. Each character is impressively well-developed and our expectations of each of them are subverted to great effect. Tanya Franks who plays Laurence, Michel’s desperate wife, and Robert Portal who plays Paul, the pitifully oblivious best friend/husband, both reveal themselves to be far more deceptive and much less pathetic than they initially seem. Frances O’Connor seems a little self-conscious as Alice to begin with, but when she settles into the role we are treated to a superb portrayal of a whiny, dissatisfied mistress – who, of course, ends up being smarter than we thought she’d be.
Towards the end it drags a little, when the surprise has worn off and we have figured out where the play is going. But we can forgive Zeller’s impulse to keep it going, as the whole audience clearly wants more. The Truth is witty and thought provoking, with strong performances – a real triumph. It confirms Florian Zeller as a name to remember.