Sunday Times, 26 June 2016
Florian Zeller says “I don’t know” a lot. But he might not mean it.
“I pretend I don’t know,” he says.
“So what do you really know?”
“I don’t know.”
We are both drinking darjeeling tea — mine black, his green — in the Royal Monceau hotel, Paris. That brief exchange convinces me I am in one of Zeller’s plays. This is an honour. He is, justifiably, the hottest playwright around, with award-winning productions in the West End and on Broadway, as well as in France, and is mentioned, in London at least, as the successor to not only Pinter, but Stoppard. If I am in one of his plays, that’s OK by me. The reviews will be a joy to read. I might get an Olivier or a Tony.
The Monceau management are in on our little fiction. They have arranged for the lights in our dark corner to go on and off (I am not making this up), and, frankly,I didn’t even know there was such a thing as green darjeeling. Maybe there isn’t — maybe it’s all part of the story, a hidden clue to the fact that this is fiction.
My first question: “Where did your obsession with what is real and what isn’t come from?”
“I really don’t know, but I know that this is what made me love theatre. The fact that you can put the audience in a labrant… Can I say that?”
“Right, labyrinth. And make them play this kind of game. I really love that for the audience and the actors.”
He keeps apologising, saying he’s having a bad day with his English. At one point, I am baffled by his reference to a man called Fogarton, but it turns out he is saying “forgotten”. I apologise in return, explaining that my French has been having a bad decade or two. He speaks English in the way — soft, low, full of delightfully whimsical constructions — that makes British women swoon. And, wouldn’t you know it, he is absurdly good-looking: lightish brown hair, stubble, boyish features, a half-smile, dark eyes made even darker by the kind of dark circles that signal intensity. He is about to be 37 (on Tuesday) and — sorry, ladies — is very well married.
“But you know” — he is continuing the answer to my first question — “I don’t try to understand where it came from or why I try to write. When I write a play, I am not aware of what I am trying to do. It is only when it is done that I realise I was trying to do that… I am the first audience of every play I write.”
Take his play The Father, for which he won the Molière prize. It is, almost everybody agrees, about dementia. An old man’s identity is fragmenting, but — here is where Zeller’s dazzling originality kicks in — we are not so much watching this as experiencing it. We are as baffled as he is about the events on stage and, like him, we have to struggle to make sense of it. But is he demented? Zeller did not sit down to write a play about dementia. He doesn’t start with a subject or a theme,but with a word or an image — in this case, one from Ionesco’s play The Chairs, in which an old man suddenly says: “Where is my mummy?”
“In the production I saw, it was beautifully done. The director decided to do something with that very short moment of regression. I was so moved by it, I thought, ‘I have to do something with this emotion.’”
When he finished the play, he realised it was — or could be — about dementia. But he sticks to the view that it is not ultimately about a particular illness. What it offers is a wider truth: we all suffer something like dementia from time to time. “It’s about becoming lost, and we can all feel lost at any time in our lives.”
The further twist here is the autobiographicalelement. Again, Zeller was unaware of this. Indeed, he rejects the idea of an author putting himself into a play, but in The Father, he breaks his own rule. “In theatre, it is not enough just to tell yourself. I was looking for something else. I was looking for something playful for the actors, not talking about myself. Then suddenly I saw I was in every sentence.”
His parents separated, and he was brought up in Brittany by his grandmother and in Paris by his mother, a fortune-teller. (Some writers have all the luck.) When he was 15, it became clear his grandmother was demented, so he had direct experience of the harrowing symptoms. At the same time, he overdosed on his asthma spray and was hospitalised with tachycardia. “I didn’t realise it was important at the time, but when I left hospital, my world-view was totally changed. I wasn’t absolutely aware of the change, but I didn’t do the same things, I didn’t want to share moments with my friends. I wanted to do something myself.”
He thought, with no possible medical justification, that he was destined to have a short life and had to move quickly. He has said that, at that moment, he started to worry and to write, but he seems to feel now that this is not quite right. He searches for a word to describe this new awareness. “Fragile,” I suggest. “Fragile! Exactly!”
Both The Father and its companion piece, The Mother, deal with fragility — how easily and quickly all that we know, all that we are, can be lost. The Mother seems to involve psychosis, rather than dementia. Accompanied by the bewildered audience, the mother loses herself as her family fragments. This, too, involves an element of concealed autobiography.
The post-tachycardia writing made Zeller famous breathtakingly quickly. He had decided to be a novelist, and his first fiction, Artificial Snow, came out in 2002. He wrote five novels in all, winning prizes and becoming a celebrity — the usual stuff, a TV talking head, the best parties. Was he uncomfortable with this phase?
“I was, a bit, because it is an uncomfortable thing. I knew it was not exactly where I was supposed to be. In life, you can do whatever you want, but you have to know what you want to be. I don’t want to be in the light, I want to be in the dark, which is what I like about theatre. It’s more comfortable for me. You’re moredistanced and you can stay focused on what is really at stake for you.”
At some point, the novelist Françoise Sagan suggested him as a writer for an opera libretto she wanted to get out of. It seems to have been a strange production, because he ended up writing a sort of mini play that was to be inserted into the opera. The star of the show was, incredibly, Gérard Depardieu: “I was really in love with him, that’s not difficult. When you write for him, it’s like being a composer writing for a musical instrument.”
But it was the backstage life that really entranced him. “It was the rehearsals — the magic of being together in an empty space, hoping for something to come without knowing exactly what.” Again, that theme of not knowing, of being free of knowing.
Zeller married Marine Delterme, an actor, artist and model, in 2010. She is nine years older than him and has a boy, Gabriel, 18, from a previous relationship. In 2008, the couple had their own son, Roman, and Zeller was blocked for a year. And here comes the autobiographical theme in The Mother.
“It changed my life. It’s one of the reasons I wrote The Mother. I spent nights taking care of Roman — so many fears, so many everything. I thought that probably somebody did the same for me when I was a baby — and I realised I had forgotten that. I felt I was a little bit ungrateful. The emotion pushed me to write The Mother, because it is about a mother being lost and a son who is leaving his mother. He has to, but still it’s painful.”
After a year, he unblocked and wrote The Mother, which premiered in 2010, followed by The Father in 2012. (In London, both ran at the Tricycle theatre.) Between those two, he wrote The Truth, which, translated by Christopher Hampton, was staged earlier this year by the Menier Chocolate Factory, in London, and now heads for the West End. It owes much to Pinter and to French romantic farce. On the face of it, this was different from his other plays, a full-on comedy. But that is to misunderstand Zeller. Even in his most harrowing scenes, he is a playful writer; and there is a terrible loss at the heart of this comedy — the loss of the truth — and a familiar sense of disintegrating identities. This one, too, is a game the audience must play.
“I want them not only to attend to something, but to try to understand where we are. They may believe they know where they are, but when they try to take hold of the truth, it has already flown away. They are in an active position because they are in a labyrinth, and they are really trying to get out of it. In a way, the audience are in the same position as the actors.”
The play’s London director, Lindsay Posner, came up against the brick wall of Zeller’s ignorance of his own work. Posner kept asking him for some background on the characters, but the writer had none: he didn’t even know the hero’s job. “My answer to directors’ questions,” he says with mild regret, “is usually ‘I don’t know’. I am very ignorant when I write.”
All he knows is on the page and on the stage. And that’s a great deal. He doesn’t write poetic or lyrical dialogue, he writes simply and directly, but with such emotional precision that huge spaces of resonance and implication form around the actors. This space of the unsaid is infinitely larger than that of the said.
Anyway, our show, The Interview, is over. He apologises once again for his English — “I am a little bit ashame [sic] of my accent” — and I mourn my French. The curtain must fall at the Royal Monceau. He has said “I don’t know” for the 30th and last time. We were good, damn good; the audience in my head went totally crazy. Finally, I must let you in on a little secret: this man knows more, a lot more, than he lets on. But you’d probably guessed that.