Before you wrote The Father, you began your writing career as a novelist. What turned you into a playwright?
My dream as a young boy was to be a novelist not a playwright, simply because I wasn’t that familiar with theatre. What brought me to writing for theatre was a succession of happen-stance and desire. It was like falling in love – I discovered this art form that I knew nothing about and I was dazzled by it.
I had known theatre as a reader, but I had never been to the theatre. That changed when my first novel [Neiges artificielles or Artificial Snow] came out and someone asked me to write the libretto for an opera. I didn’t know much about theatre but I knew about music so the project seduced me and, without knowing what I was doing, I was taking my first step towards being a playwright.
What were you able to explore, to find, in writing for theatre that you hadn’t found in writing novels?
Writing for theatre brings related joys: the joy of building something with other people – something bigger than yourself – and the joy of a group of actors, of the theatre-life, the act of rehearsing, working and dreaming alongside other people. Also, something that truly touches me about theatre is the fact that it’s a simple art, it’s very modest. You can’t get away from the illusion.
As an audience, we observe the illusion, are conscious of the theatre’s unreality, yet we are still touched by and sensitive to the destiny of the characters in front of us, even though these are actors performing emotions and feelings that are artificial. Artificial in the noble sense of the word, meaning that they have been crafted. However, they are still communicated as if they were the truth. And this is what I find so deeply moving about theatre. At the same time as you know that everything is false, your soul is transported as if it were true. Theatre is the language of children, of play, of illusion. It’s also the language of magic – and it’s that dimension of magic, very modest magic, that I find most striking about theatre.
When you set out to write The Father, what was the initial inspiration?
I wrote this play for a French actor, Robert Hirsch, who was 88 at the time and is an actor whom I admire a lot. That was one source for my writing – I wanted to write for this body, this voice, this presence.
Some have compared John Bell's role of André in The Father to King Lear. Is it, in the end, a tragic role in that sense?
It’s always perilous trying to sum things up in one word. Still, I would say, ‘Yes, I think this is a tragic role’. The play seems to me to be animated by a destination, its end, which is a tragic destination. So, I think that gives the piece its colour, even though there are detours, small detours, into comedy and tap dancing.
At the beginning, the character is fighting against what is happening to him and he is fighting the only way he has left, that is to say, with life and vitality. This informs even the situations and confrontations that are of a non-tragic nature. The tragedy overtakes him. What I mean is that he, like us all, is never going to beat death. His defeat is in its essence tragic.
This is an excerpt from a longer interview with Florian Zeller that is part of the program for The Father, which also features:
- notes from Artistic Director Kip Williams and director Damien Ryan
- an interview with designer Alicia Clements
- a conversation with actor John Bell and director Damien Ryan
- biographies and photos of the cast and crew
- photos from the rehearsal room
- illustrations by Archibald-winning artist Nicholas Harding
- and much more!
Pick one up at the theatre for only $10
The Father, 19 Aug – 21 Oct 2017, Wharf 1 Theatre
Seeing the show? Let us know your thoughts. Tag @sydneytheatreco or #sydneytheatreco
Translated from French by Marie Laubie and Carl Nilsson-Polias