Yasmina Reza on writing a play that can rival ‘ART’

Having effectively skewered Nicolas Sarkozy, the playwright Yasmina Reza returns to the West End with a bleak and brutal drama. She talks to Alice Jones

Around halfway through an enervating morning, Yasmina Reza flops back on the over-stuffed brocade sofa in the drawing room of the impossibly chic Covent Garden Hotel and declares, in dramatically accented English, "I suffer a lot." The causes of the petite Parisian's suffering, it emerges, are manifold, if not a little surprising for one of the powerhouses of European playwriting in the past decade: they include, in no particular order of awfulness, productions of her plays ("I don't want to be in a situation of suffering – that's why I never go and see them"), translations of her plays ("As soon as I see a translation in English, I suffer") and the audiences who watch her plays ("I have no tolerance for them at all").

All in all, being Reza must be rather difficult. But not half as difficult, one surmises, as working with Reza must be. Nevertheless, since the earliest days of her break-out hit, 'Art' – which ran for eight years in the West End and has been translated into 35 languages – distinguished actors from Richard Griffiths to Ralph Fiennes have clamoured to appear in her plays. For her first – and bestselling – foray into biographical writing last year, she secured the spectacular quarry of Nicolas Sarkozy, gaining exclusive access to shadow him for the duration of his presidential campaign.

After our interview, she is off to cast her beady eye over rehearsals where a typically all-star cast – Fiennes, Tamsin Greig, Ken Stott and Janet McTeer – are putting the finishing touches to the London production of her latest play, God of Carnage. It is one more trial for a cast and crew who have already undergone rigorous scrutiny from the playwright. "They don't hire any actors without my permission," she tells me proudly. The same applies to translators, directors and producers.

Her long-suffering London producer David Pugh (responsible for, among other things, putting a naked Harry Potter on stage in Equus) recalls endless evenings spent watching DVDs in the Plaza Athénée hotel in New York as they searched for a suitable Broadway cast for 'Art'. Robert de Niro and Al Pacino very nearly made the grade but when their demands were considered a little unreasonable, they were swiftly rejected.

Reza likes to supervise those productions that are considered important – generally in London, New York, France and Germany. The rest? "I don't even go and see them," she says dismissively. Apparently, when she was invited to the gala 1,000th performance of 'Art' in London, she went to the pre-show drinks then sneaked out to watch another play before turning up at the after-show party where she pretended that she'd been there for the whole time. Recently, she did enjoy a production of A Spanish Play directed by Krystian Lupa in Warsaw. "It was not funny at all. It was great," she says. "Sometimes after watching a production, I'm full of joy. I see things I haven't seen before and it's a real discovery. But that's rare."

God of Carnage reunites her with the A-team who brought 'Art' to the West End in 1996: Matthew Warchus (who also directed the London premieres of The Unexpected Man and Life x 3); Pugh; her English translator Christopher Hampton; and Stott, who was in the original cast. She must really trust them to do a good job by now? "It's difficult to answer this question. I like them very much and of course I trust them – in a way. They are brilliant people, gifted people, but I could not say we are in a passive, quiet relationship."

When one actress buckled under the pressure and left the original cast of Life x 3 two weeks before it opened in Paris in 2001 ("She couldn't manage the part – not enough skill..."), Reza, a trained actress, stepped into the breach. "I was packing to go and see The Unexpected Man with Alan Bates in New York when the director called me. I thought it was a pure catastrophe but he said that he had a wonderful idea for another actress. I thought, 'I bet I'm not going to agree.' He said, 'You!' And I said, 'When do I start?'"

Not even Sarkozy was exempt from the writer's famously steely control. "During the time I was very close to him and looking at him with my pen and cahier, he was mine. I took from him what I wanted and I was the master of him. He was my Sarkozy. Now, he's on his own," she shrugs. "I look at this man, doing things on his own and it's very bizarre."

Dawn, Dusk or Night, published here next month, is a characteristically mysterious portrait, beginning with the prophetic (in the post-Carla Bruni era) words "L'homme seul est un rêve". Her stream-of-consciousness prose revels in deliciously trivial details about the President – his magpie-eye for expensive watches, his sweet tooth – as well as chronicling meetings with everyone from Tony Blair to Barack Obama. "When I told my friends I was going to write a portrait of Sarkozy, they thought I was crazy," Reza says. "He's a man who has always inspired passionate feelings. When people say it's the end of Sarkozy, it's no more the end than it was la gloire éternelle six months ago."

Meeting Reza, who notoriously spurns interviews and has a formidable reputation for snobbery and being difficult, is, then, a daunting prospect. But today, the 48-year old is unexpectedly good company. Dressed casually but elegantly in a grey cardigan layered over a silk camisole, with artfully mussed jet black hair and heavily lidded dark eyes, she is at once fiercely guarded and refreshingly candid, frequently breaking into charming peals of laughter. She is, in many ways, the embodiment of the spirit of her plays – both darkly enigmatic and wickedly funny.

She began her career on the stage. Having completed "some studies of no interest" at the University of Nanterre, she enrolled at the renowned Jacques Lecoq theatre school and spent a few years acting in Molière and Marivaux. But the waiting around for work irritated her – "You are not the master of your own destiny" – and she soon turned to the more independent pursuit of writing, producing her first screenplay for Jusqu'à la nuit, directed by Didier Martiny, her now ex-partner, with whom she has two children.

In 1987, she wrote her first play, the Molière Award-winning Conversations After a Burial. An elegant country-house dissection of sibling rivalries, it set out V C her distinctive stall as a writer of "funny tragedy". "Most of the reviews – which were the greatest I've ever had – said it was very Chekhovian," she says, leaning in conspiratorially. "My reaction was, 'I must go and read some Chekhov!'"

It was 'Art', her hilarious Beckettian tale of three mutually dependent friends who fall out over the purchase of a very expensive all-white painting, which made her name – and her fortune. In the Parisian audience was Sean Connery's wife Micheline, who immediately suggested to her husband that he buy up the film rights. Reza, characteristically, said no. "It's not a question of principle, I'm not against a film. I've just never had a project in front of me that convinced me."

Nothing daunted, Connery went on to co-produce the London theatre premiere and a smash hit was born. In its eight-year West End run, it showcased 26 casts, which included Roger Allam, Albert Finney, Roger Lloyd Pack, Chris Langham, Jack Dee and the League of Gentlemen – Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith.

Was she surprised by the scale of its success? "I would not say that. When we had the first reading, I heard the play and I immediately knew that it could be done elsewhere – which was my ambition. I didn't want to be a typically French author, only performed in France." Although 'Art' went on to win the Olivier for best new comedy, the critics were unconvinced, suggesting that excellent acting carried a play that was as bland as the canvas it centred on. The Independent's Paul Taylor declared it "meringue masquerading as piquantly sauced meat", while the play's box-office takings, estimated at $300m worldwide, led Dominic Dromgoole, in his 2001 A-Z of contemporary playwriting The Full Room, to dismiss the playwright with a single, churlish line: "Yasmina Reza est très riche."

Although Reza's approach to writing is fairly relaxed – "I don't write in the morning. And in the afternoon, if there's something more exciting to do, I'll do it" – it was five years before she felt ready to write a follow-up. In between, she wrote novels, including the autobiographical Hammerklavier, before returning to the dramatic arena in 2000 with Life x 3, in which a disastrous dinner-party that's continually disrupted by the requests of a spoilt child is replayed three times.

God of Carnage, which is currently running in Paris in a production directed by Reza and starring Isabelle Huppert, takes a superficially similar form, pitting two couples against each other. Whereas her earlier plays focused mercilessly on vampiric, suffocating male relationships, these later works probe marriage and parenthood. "For a long time, I was more obsessed with relationships between men. And it was easier for me to write through a man's voice because it hid me like a mask," she says. "But I think I've made progress now. More and more I write better parts for women. I've improved."

In God of Carnage, the couples' conversation is dominated by a particularly brutal playground fight between their respective sons. "Parenting is an inexhaustible subject," Reza says. "I've been a normal parent, I've met parents, I've stood at the school gates." Her 20-year-old daughter is studying to be a lawyer, and her 15-year-old son wants to be singer. Neither has professed an interest in the theatre ("Thank God!"). There is, she says, nothing autobiographical in this latest work, unlike Life x 3, in which the demanding child was based on her son. "When my son came to see it in Paris, he was the same age as the child in the play," she tells me, suddenly giggly and maternal. "At the end he turned to me and said, 'The child is terrible. I could do it much better.'"

The new four-hander is Reza's most uncomfortable work yet, as an initially cordial occasion descends into an Albee-esque nightmare of boozing, recrimination and neuroses. As usual, there are larger themes lurking beneath the immaculate soft furnishings and barbed chitchat, but this time round the view of humanity is particularly bleak (including an inexplicable act of cruelty involving a hamster) and futile, as fruitless demands for an apology bring to mind the messy aftermath of the war in Iraq and the stalemate in the Middle East.

To Reza's chagrin, this abstract tackling of "big ideas" from the comfort of the sofa has seen her plays labelled as quintessentially Gallic. "If they were so typically French, they wouldn't go all around the world," she argues, reeling off influences as diverse as Dostoevsky and F Scott Fitzgerald. "Maybe the characters are typically French, but the writing is not at all. It's inherited from my way of speaking, from my family. It's a Jewish way of thinking – very fast, sharp, funny and self-mocking. For me, the French language is a new country. No one in my family, apart from my parents, who had accents, could speak French. I wanted to be French. When you are from nowhere, you want to lay claim to somewhere."

Reza's mother is Hungarian and her father was an Iranian Jew born in Moscow. They met in France, and Yasmina, the eldest of three daughters (one of whom died in infancy), was born in Paris in 1959. She is fiercely proud of her origins and her peculiar, deracinated writing style. "There are lots of words and phrases that I more or less invent, which in English are so flat, so poor. If – and I'm totally incapable of doing it – I could write directly in English, I would never write in the way the translations are written. As soon as I see a translation in English, I suffer. And Christopher suffers too – I make him suffer."

Ideally, she'd like the audiences of her plays to suffer a little more, too. While her plays appear to pander to the middle-class sensibilities and sense of humour of those watching, the playwright has frequently slammed their cosy impression of being in on the joke, "laughter congratulating itself for being intelligent enough to know why it's being laughed".

But she must realise that her "funny tragedies" are likely to produce just such a reaction? "I have nothing against laughter. On the contrary. But they are not pure comedy, not nonsense. I hope that they have a deep, profound meaning." She sighs. "Most of the time I don't agree with the reaction to my plays. It's very contradictory. Pierre Arditi [who starred in 'Art' in Paris] once said the most wonderful thing: 'If we had to choose the audience according to your criteria'," – her dark eyes light up with glee – "'We'd play in front of 12 people.'"

'God of Carnage', Gielgud Theatre, London W1 (0844 482 5130; www.godofcarnage.com), booking to 14 June

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders