Alice and Michel are having an affair. Their respective partners, Paul and Laurence, are also having an affair – although it is not until the final minute of a ninety-minute drama that this feels in any way like a certainty. The Truth is an obstacle course of deceits, with Michel being convinced that something different is going on in nearly every scene.
The feat that this play performs is that it leaves the audience in just as much doubt as Michel. In this sense The Truth is much like French playwright’s Florian Zeller’s The Father and The Mother – both also having recently been adapted by Christopher Hampton into successful London shows. These plays also implicate us in the action by refusing to offer us privileged insights as spectators. Zeller does away with the discretely placed signals that usually enlighten us, so that we no longer know who or what to trust – and instead exist on equal terms with the characters: just as uncertain and confused.
Zeller presents us with the theatrical equivalent of Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or Michael Haneke’s Hidden – where an untrustworthy narrator or a camera lens that hides away from the central events re-situate the reader or viewer so that they play a key role in disentangling what is before them.
It’s a very interesting way of treating a slightly hackneyed subject. The Truth is extremely entertaining and intelligent in how it’s put together, and yet beneath that – the dilemma it poses (whether deception might be preferable to telling the truth in cases of infidelity) is a little uninspiring. Should Michel lie to spare Laurence? Have we not heard this a thousand times before? And does anyone actually care?
Another difficulty was that, as with The Father, I was left uncertain as to whether the characters are vessels for a concept, or real people we’re supposed to empathise with. It’s a problem I often have with Pinter (a playwright who has clearly influenced Zeller), in that the roles feel symbolic and deracinated in a way that clearly derives from Beckett, whilst at the same time there remains the lingering influence of psychological realism. These two characteristics sit uneasily alongside one another – they demand very different responses that are hard to configure. And to be honest, it feels more like the accidental byproduct of different cultural influences than an intentional effect.
Lindsay Posner’s production is intriguing, and reflects this stylistic hybridity. The performances are highly stylised: four slightly crazed and very posh automatons, a bit like a Ballardian nightmare. And yet alongside this there’s a pervasive naturalism, and moments of emotional honesty that feel a little out of place.
Lizzie Clachan’s Escher-like set is excellent – it moves in labyrinthine ways to reveal plush, minimalist Parisian interiors in a manner that very neatly imitates the twists and turns of the play.
There is a lot that makes The Truth feel like a well-made play: impeccably structured, highly mannered, at times very funny, relentlessly bourgeois, and a little shy on thought provoking or challenging content. And yet at the same time it is achingly innovative and modern – redefining the role of the audience in a way that responds to the widespread transformation of our engagement with media from passive to active.
One last thing. I think it is an entirely unforgivable thing for an author to include in their program notes that they live in Paris with their ‘ex-model’ wife. I really felt like the boundaries of morality and good taste were being crossed, and struggled hard not to vomit into my own lap.