“In French I know how to say things.” When Florian Zeller tells me this, amusedly frustrated over his struggle to articulate a particular sentiment in (his pretty downright excellent) English, it might just be the understatement of the year.
At 22 he knew how to say things in French so well he had his first novel published. Two years later he was onto his third, the controversial The Fascination Of Evil, which garnered such success it launched him into life as a bonafide literary celebrity in his home country. A little over a decade later, he has a total of five books under his belt and several award-winning plays on top of that following his “late” discovery of theatre. He was just 21 by the way. You could put it down to the language barrier, but I think the speed Zeller moves might just be a little more highly evolved than the rest of us.
I think I can be forgiven, therefore, for feeling just a touch intimidated walking into the Trafalgar Hotel where we met for coffee to discuss The Father, his Molière Award-winning play that opens this week at the Wyndham’s Theatre. But it’s somewhat normalising when he announces his desperation to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet but can’t get tickets. Turns out even being a Parisian zeitgeist doesn’t mean you can bypass the day ticket line at the Barbican. With his trademark mop of hair – think a grown up Noel Fielding with better product – and a seeming intrigue for being interviewed, he’s warm, predictably fiercely intelligent and an intense combination of resoundingly pragmatic and passionately romantic when it comes to the subject of what it is to be a writer.
While he may not be the household name in the UK that he is in France, there could be nothing better to prove his literary credentials to London than James Macdonald’s production of The Father. It’s a blisteringly truthful insight into the mind of one man in the throes of dementia, blurring reality and fantasy with dizzying results, and tonight British audiences will be placed in Zeller’s adept disorientating hands for its West End opening. Here, in his words, Zeller explains how The Father came to be born.
I wrote The Father four years ago and I really wanted to work with a French actor, Robert Hirsch. It’s a strange way of beginning to write, it wasn’t the subject that inspired me but this old man. I was inspired by his voice, his body, his way of being alive.
When I wrote the play I finally realised that the reason I wanted to write for him was to write about dementia, because it has a really personal link. My grandmother, who raised me, had dementia from when I was 15 and I was deeply moved by that situation.
I went to see a play about five years ago by Eugène Ionesco called The Chairs and at a very specific moment, the old man cries to have his mother back. I was very moved by that because, for one second, he looks like an old man and like a baby. That moment was what I was trying to express in that play, just that feeling.
In life you have to find someone you really trust to be at ease with what’s going on. It was a gift for me that I met Christopher Hampton, everything was easier for me after that. For example, he told me that it was a good thing to do it first in Bath and then he told me it was a good thing to go to a smaller theatre and to do it step by step, rather than go straight into the West End. And he was right. We’ve been working together for something like three years. He decided to translate one of my plays called L’Autre, which will be done in London in around March.
I once directed one of my plays and I really tried to ‘kill the writer’. It was hard and I didn’t succeed! 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.
It’s a pleasure to write something that disorientates people and it is what I really like as a spectator; by becoming a part of the action by trying to work out what is going on and to discover again and again that you know nothing. With The Father I really tried to make people feel the story from the inside of the illness. In cinema, we’d say a subjective camera, to make people feel what maybe this character would feel, not to hear about dementia from the outside but from the inside. I thought only theatre could propose that experience.
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.
The Father has won awards but the real award was the fact it played for almost three years in France. The fact that we – the actors, the director and so on – really felt that something happened with the public was very powerful for us and the real award. Theatre is about sharing something and that’s the only aim that we had, that’s all.
There’s something very invisible that happens between the stage and the public, there’s a presence. I spend so much time in theatres and listening to the public, so I have an ear for it.
I discovered theatre almost by accident. I really love music and after my first novel I was asked to write a libretto. I didn’t know that it was going to be the way I met theatre. I was very happy during the rehearsals and it was a beautiful experience. It was quite late to discover theatre, I was something like 21, but after that I went often and fell in love with the mystery.
As a playwright and novelist, for me, it isn’t the story that decides which medium it should be written in, it’s the desire itself. I think it’s quite impossible to begin to write a novel and then to realise that it’s a play or vice versa. It’s not the same desire, there is a huge difference. Personally I realised that the actors for whom I was writing often decide for the play, for me. It’s almost like having a muse. When you write a novel you are really alone.
There are a lot of British actors that could be muses. For example, I wanted to see Hamlet because of Benedict Cumberbatch, because I really love him in Sherlock.
To write for theatre is to dream about sharing something, sharing an experience that is bigger than yourself. This is what is very beautiful about the theatre for me.
Each play is a new story and what you did before is useless. What is very joyful for me is that it’s easier for me now to do what I really want to do, to work with people I really want to work with, especially to work with the actors I dreamt about.