The mystery of Florian Zeller's paired "puzzle" plays

The Mother and The Father both show two characters called Anna and Pierre, who both times end up in a hospital room - but are they the same people?

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Alan Ayckbourn and Tom Stoppard have each had three plays on in London at the same time. But if theatrical historians, like diving judges, make allowances for degree of difficulty, it is surely remarkable that the feat will soon be achieved by the 36-year-old French dramatist Florian Zeller. Early next month, as The Mother nears the end of its extended run at the Tricycle in Kilburn, and The Father occupies the Duke of York’s for its second West End run, a third Zeller play, The Truth (translated, like the others, by Christopher Hampton) will be starting previews at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

In this accidental UK triple-bill, The Mother and The Father are the works most formally linked, not only by family resemblance but by the presence of characters called Anne and Pierre, who in each case end up in a hospital room. Whether the people in the two plays are supposed to be the same is only the beginning of the puzzles that
Zeller sets the audience, as there turn out to be several Annes and multiple Pierres in each production.

In The Father, Kenneth Cranham, depicting mental fogginess with exact precision, plays the opening moments as an old man talking to his daughter, Anne. In the second scene, the father is in the same living-room set, but when he shouts for his daughter, “Anne,” it is a different actress who comes in from the kitchen. Throughout the play, scenes are repeated with minor variations of dialogue but major alterations in which performer is playing which role. Similar revisionism occurs frequently in The Mother, in which Gina McKee’s Anne – after concluding a conversation with her possibly adulterous husband, Pierre, and unhappy son, Nicholas – plays out an almost identical scenario, but with husband and wife saying slightly different things and the possibility that Nicholas is an imagined presence.

Movie scripts use the abbreviation POV (point of view) to indicate whose versions of events we are watching. The general consensus is that, beyond the use of on-stage narrators, it is hard to play with point of view in theatre, as the framing of the stage creates the equivalent of a cinematic wide-shot – and so the theatregoer can choose where to look.

The Father and The Mother are POV-plays, however, dramatising two types of unreliable memory. In the male play, we experience, with disconcerting vividness, what it might be like to be inside the mind of someone with Alzheimer’s, from which perspective the sudden shifting of names and identities is realism rather than surrealism. In the female play, Anne’s mind is playing different tricks on her, the alternative versions of the same scenes representing conflicting memories of what has happened, or fantasies about how situations might have played out. Sometimes we seem to have heard or seen things that some characters on stage have not.

It will probably astonish Brother Lucian, who taught me A-level French, but I was able to read La Mère with surprising ease in the Zeller anthology Théâtre: Volume 1, which seems to suggest that his dialogue is neither complex nor idiomatic. Certainly, even though Hampton is naturally an epigrammatic writer – both in his own work and in his great adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses which is being revived at the Donmar Warehouse – The Mother and The Father are not plays from which the audience comes out quoting choice lines. Instead, they discuss what they think they have seen. The fun is in the puzzle of the structures and the presentation of uncertainty that they provide.

From the French text, I can also reveal that a supposedly comically unglamorous place-name that Hampton has translated as “Leicester” is, in the original, “Dijon”. I will leave it to Europeans familiar with both ­cities to decide whether they are a match for perceived naffness and drabness.

The French dramatist has often been compared to Harold Pinter, and, coincidentally or not, the cover image of Théâtre: Volume 1 is the sack-covered kissing heads of Magritte’s painting Les Amants, which was also on the front of the Methuen Pinter: Plays 3. But Zeller’s true theatrical twin is slightly further down the library shelf: Pirandello, whose games with theatrical reality he takes into new areas of neuroscience.

Because the plays have different producers, it won’t be possible to get a combined mum-and-dad ticket for the first two Zellers, but it is worth trying to schedule a double trip of your own. And, after a reading of La Vérité, I am eager to see what Hampton has made of it as The Truth. Zeller, anyway, feels like a great find. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war

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