Hampstead Theatre, London – until 12 March 2022
The French novelist-turned-playwright Florian Zeller hit the British theatre scene a few years ago with two comedies: The Lie and The Truth, which at the time I described as “a punch-in-the-guts, cruelly affectionate, whip-smart ninety-minute treat”. He played with questions about lies, belief, suspicion and pretended-belief which is itself a lie, set in bourgeois comfortable homes where someone is cheating.
Later, again with a brilliant Christopher Hampton translation, we saw his wrenchingly more earnest The Mother dealing with distress and delusion, and The Father which became a film, terrifyingly evoking dementia. He uses theatre brilliantly to deceive: imaginary conversations and events might be real, real ones reimagined, sometimes repeatedly. Still more tragic was the third of the mother-father trilogy, The Son, but it had the very uncharacteristic weakness of being too obvious too early.
But always you can rely on Monsieur Zeller to mess with your head, fry your brain, use the immediacy of theatre to its best. I recount all this because this is a world premiere in Britain, because he loves our theatre world and it loves him back. And because, while it is not his strongest work – watchable, estimable but not the best – it is extra fascinatingly interesting if you know the rest.
For it picks up once again the question of adulterous lies, but combines it with his other more troubling theme of mental danger and confusion. Once again it’s a bourgeois family – the handsome surgeon, distressed for his daughter who has found her partner cheating but comfortably insisting that these things are forgivable, and everything will go “back to normal” (that yearning phrase recurs throughout the elegantly designed nightmare that lies ahead for him) . The point is that he – played by Toby Stephens and Paul McGann, who we reckon are the same person – is also cheating.
Anna Fleischle’s design splits the stage sideways and vertically so we see him with his mistress, an increasingly demanding and angrily distressed Angel Coulby, and sometimes in a side room where he is either anxiously confiding in male friends, rebuking his daughter’s partner, or ever more alarmingly encountering a superb Finbar Lynch in sinister lighting. The latter is a black-clad, gleamingly whitely bald interrogator-therapist who is quite likely, who knows, yet another manifestation of the hero himself, since we all have an invisible therapist to beat ourselves up with at times .
In short sharp scenes things get worse and worse. The title comes from the fairytale of the knight who charges into a forest after a white stag and finds himself hopelessly lost and unable to get – that phrase again – back to normal. Meanwhile Gina McKee, who was so brilliant in The Mother, has a rather less interesting role as his wronged wife, but nonetheless gives it a real, weird punch: she creates an air of actually knowing his secret all the time without acknowledgement. I think many wives of cheaters will recognize her: it’s very subtle.
Everything gets stranger, there’s a Banquo moment, the flat fills with flowers for no reason, a portrait on the wall changes and there is a terrible death which may be real or may be imagined. A final scene in the top room means that I should assure you that no white stags were harmed in the making of this play. It’s 85 minutes: director Jonathan Kent skilfully keeps it on the move and the cast achieve just the necessary dislocation – sometimes conversing from different rooms and time-scales. I’d go again. But then, as I admitted, I am a Zellerite. He’s like a more humane early Stoppard.
BOX OFFICE hampsteadtheatre.com to 12 March
‘Florian Zeller is like a more humane early Tom Stoppard’: @lib_thinks on #TheForest, the lauded French playwright’s latest premiere. At @Hamps_Theatre til 12 Mar. ★★★★ #theatrereviews #newwriting #HTForest