Spotlight: Florian Zeller - The most exciting new theatre writer of our time

PUBLISHED: 07:00 12 October 2017

French playwright Florian Zeller. Photo: Alain Jocard / 2012 AFP

French playwright Florian Zeller. Photo: Alain Jocard / 2012 AFP

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Our culture correspondent Viv Groskop charts the many chapters in the career of a man described as the ‘most exciting new theatre writer of our time’.

Florian Zeller is one of those people who, once you find out about them, you feel as if you should already have known who they were a very long time ago.

Basically he’s a cultural phenomenon: a French playwright beloved at home who is also winning awards across the world. Dubbed “the most exciting new theatre writer of our time”, his play The Lie (Le Mensonge) had its English language world premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London this month. It tells the story of Alice (played by Samantha Bond), who see her friend’s husband with another woman. Alice thinks she should tell her friend. But her husband Paul thinks it would be better to lie. Who is right?

The play has been translated by Christopher Hampton and is directed by Lindsay Posner. It is the second time this team has worked together: last year The Truth, another Zeller play, opened at the Menier and was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Comedy after a West End transfer. The Truth was Zeller’s third hit on the West End: The Father and The Mother – he does like a simple title – also had rave reviews. The notices for The Truth were, frankly, extraordinary, with his work compared to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. “Funny, thought-provoking and plays seamlessly as a dream,” wrote Kate Kellaway in the Observer.

The Lie, starring Tony Gardner, Alexandra Gilbreath and Alexander Hanson alongside Bond, is not so much a sequel to The Truth as ‘an opposite’, says Zeller: “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.”

Born in Paris in 1979, the second of three children, Zeller was raised by his grandmother and his mother, a theatrical woman who apparently “liked to read Tarot cards”. His father was an engineer who worked in Germany. It was a childhood full of stories and drama but not necessarily books, culture or theatre, he has said.

The turning point that propelled him towards literature happened in his teens. At the age of 15, he had an asthma attack and went into a coma.

“That was a definitive moment,” he has said, “Afterward I didn’t see the world through the same glasses, in the same way. I think it’s at that moment that worry and writing entered my life.”

He was an undergraduate at the legendary Sciences Po in Paris but left before graduating so that he could focus on his writing. That seems to have paid off pretty well. Zeller has achieved more cultural accolades than many writers achieve in a lifetime and all before his 40th birthday.

He first achieved success as a novelist, writing his first book Artificial Snow at the age of 22. His third novel, The Fascination of Evil (which won the 2004 Prix Interallie), a worryingly prescient story of Islamist terror, was the work that made his name in France.

This was all plenty already. But then he turned to theatre and swiftly became a global name. His most significant work is widely regarded as The Father (Le Pere) which was adapted into the 2015 film Floride. It won a Moliere Award for best play and has been dubbed “the most acclaimed new play of the last decade”.

When The Father, which is about an elderly man losing his mind, opened in London, Zeller’s theatre work was described as “a second career for him but almost a second birth as a writer”. Zeller told the Evening Standard: “I was really concerned by writing novels and I discovered theatre almost by accident.” He was commissioned to write a libretto for opera and turned it into a play. “So I discovered the joy and the mystery of theatre. And that’s how I began.”

Zeller is known as a fixture on the literary scene in Paris. Czech writer Milan Kundera is a mate and he is married to the actress Marine Delterme, a darling of the French gossip columns. (She is Carla Bruni’s best friend and was a witness at Bruni’s wedding to Nicolas Sarkozy.)

In London he clearly has a warm relationship with Hampton, his translator (and also the translator of Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Hampton has also translated the French playwright, Yasmina Reza (Art, God of Carnage), to whom Zeller is often compared. The two have had similar success outside of France. Zeller says of Christopher Hampton: “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,” he told The Stage. Not many writers have had a hat-trick of plays in London: Zeller is in good company with Agatha Christie, JB Priestley, Alan Ayckbourn and Tennessee Williams.

His work also clearly translates even for an American audience. Last year The Father opened on Broadway, following its rave reviews in London and Paris, and Zeller was soon being feted by Variety magazine and the New York Times as “the next playwright to know.”

One interview describes him as “being a little more highly evolved than the rest of us” which doesn’t seem entirely implausible. He’s not quite perfect, though, thank goodness.

An attempt to direct one of his plays was unsuccessful (in his own view). “It was hard and I didn’t succeed,” he says, “But it was important for me because after that I went to very good directors without difficulty. It was easier for me to not try to be everywhere.”

One of Zeller’s themes is deception and the use of lies. He is interested in the effects of repetition and comparison: both in The Mother and The Father he uses a technique where a scene is repeated with certain variations. His influences include Harold Pinter and Eugene Ionesco.

Whilst novels and theatre are clearly his first loves, he watches a bit of telly too: he declared himself a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in Sherlock.

In a cultural universe where people can be moany about the theatre (both in London and Paris) – about the prices and the uncomfortable seats – Zeller is a wonderful ambassador for the genre. “What you can see in one night will never happen again. It’s something that will disappear. At the end, when everybody applauds, it’s both to say thank you and goodbye to something that appeared and disappeared. For a very short moment those people shared something that from the very beginning was going to disappear.”

There’s an inspiring international quality to Zeller’s work, reflected in his popularity outside France. But he also has a beautifully French way of expressing himself: “I think even when you don’t want to write a comedy, theatre is comedy by definition. In French the word is ludique (playful). We say actors are playing, so it’s like they are children. When you write for theatre, it has to be very connected with this part of the soul.” Long may he access his inner child.

  • The Lie is at the Chocolate Menier Factory now until November 18: www.menierchocolatefactory.com

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