Interview: But is it Art?

The play `Art' took Paris by storm and then became a hit from the West End to Tel Aviv. Can Yasmina Reza do it again? Naturellement, she tells E Jane Dickson

"Life," trills Yasmina Reza, "is not enough. That is why I write. To sit in front of a blank page, it is a way of confronting le vide, this hole in the middle of our existence."

You can say this kind of thing in Paris and nobody turns a hair. In the mirrored salon of the Hotel Lutetia, the waiter bangs down our cups with existential gloom. What's a coffee stain here or there, when you're trembling on the verge of nothingness? The Lutetia has sheltered generations of Left Bank philosophers airing their ideas, but it has taken Yasmina Reza to package l'intellectualisme francaise for export around the world like so much duty-free scent. Since its Paris premiere in 1994, her play Art has been translated into 30 languages and played to capacity in London, New York, Berlin, Madrid, Budapest, Moscow, Tokyo, Tel Aviv and Johannesburg. There have been sniffy noises from some critics about "coffee-table art", but the resounding consensus is that Reza has triumphantly reconciled the theatre of ideas with a good night out. Or, as Hollywood might have it (Sean Connery has been sitting on the film rights since the Paris premiere), Reza is "Sartre with a heart(re)".

"I am the only living French playwright, whose work is known and performed across the globe," says Reza, comfortably. "I don't want to seem especially modest and say that this is not because I am the best. Modesty is a pointless sham. If you consider what you have done to be nothing, why on earth would you show it to the world? That would be the worst arrogance."

Over in the corner, a group of American matrons, feet spreading in their ankle socks, are gawping reverently at Reza. From her immaculately disordered curls to the pointy toes of her exquisite embroidered mules, this tiny, emphatic woman is the very pattern of Parisian chic, so much so that you wonder at her lack of a poodle and decide that it's probably off being dyed to match the chartreuse silk of her dress. Her neat, quick manner and put-that- in-your-pipe- and-smoke-it delivery strongly recall the pert heroines of Moliere or Beaumarchais, but La Reza, you sense, has always been more diva than soubrette.

The daughter of a Russian/Persian businessman and a Hungarian violinist, Reza, 38, was born in Paris and grew up in the highly cultivated and cosmopolitan milieu of the Jewish bourgeoisie. While other girls in her class sighed for Johnny Halliday or Sacha Distel, Yasmina had Beethoven for her teenage pin-up. ("That frown. Those brows. To me he was the last word in virility.") After a sociology degree, she went on to the famous Jacques Lecoq theatre school, but quickly realised that there weren't enough leading roles to go round.

"As an actor, you can wait all your life , even if you're very, very good, for the one great part that will make your career. This was utterly impossible for me. I'm too impatient and too sensitive to time passing. As a writer, you call your own shots."

And call them she does. Her English translator, Christopher Hampton (who also translated and adapted Liaisons Dangereuses for stage and screen), famously remarked that after working with Reza he would only translate writers who were safely dead.

"I adore Christopher now, but at the beginning, I accused him of everything. I accused him of being too faithful to the words and not faithful enough to the sense. Then I changed my mind and accused him of being too faithful to the sense at the expense of style. `Betray me, betray me,' I would beg, `but give me some style!'"

Between them, they cooked up a winner, scooping an Olivier and an Evening Standard award, but still Reza was uneasy. Art, in which three old friends are brought to the edge of the abyss by an argument over a blank canvas, had been much commended in France for its subtle interplay of intellectual and emotional themes. In England, the audience looked into the abyss and laughed.

"When I accepted the Olivier award for Best Comedy, I said, `But I thought it was a tragedy', and I wasn't entirely joking. British audiences will laugh at anything, all the time they are laughing, laughing, laughing, cackling like fools. The first time I sat in a British audience, I was so upset. I thought `Oh my god, this is terrible, the actors are audible, yes, but you simply cannot hear what the play is saying.' The people around me were saying `What's the matter with you? The play is a tremendous success!' But I was really very sad. I was very afraid that the same thing would happen in New York, but the audience there is very intelligent. They laugh, yes, but they know when to stop. And they don't cough. But," says Reza, with more regret than resignation, "you cannot control the audience."

The playwright's other great fear, sweetened, she admits, by the revenue pouring in from the four corners of the earth, is that Art's massive success would label her a one-hit wonder. "It's not so bad in France, where I was already well known before Art - my very first play, Conversations Apres un Enterrement won a Moliere - but when I'm abroad, people come up to me and say, `Ooh, I just love your play', I make a point of saying `Oh really? Which one?' To me, Art is like a party dress, a very pretty and well-made piece of work, but not at all typical of my style."

Reza could have named her price for Art II on Broadway. Instead, she offered one of her earlier plays, The Unexpected Man, to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Pesky audiences aside, "London is still the dream, the mythical prize, for the playwright".

If Art was a party dress, The Unexpected Man, which transfers on 10 June to the Duchess Theatre for a limited West End run, is a good tweed suit, a sombre and distinctly mature piece for a writer not yet out of her thirties. A distinguished but disillusioned author (Michael Gambon in marvellously dyspeptic mode) finds himself sitting opposite his greatest fan (Eileen Atkins) in a train carriage. The couple do not converse until the very end of the play, yet their thoughts, revealed in a series of monologues, are intimately connected.

The Unexpected Man, which is a more revealing and reflective play than Art, was inspired by two events in Reza's life: "One of the people I have been most impressed by in my life is a Romanian writer and philosopher called Cioran. He is unjust, he is excessive, he is all the things I admire. I must have written to him a thousand times, asking for a rendezvous, and then torn up the letter, too embarrassed to send it. One day, I saw him in the street, quite near where I live, so I followed him, desperately trying to find something to say to him, but everything I came up with in my head just sounded too idiotic. I could have gone up and introduced myself to him - I was already quite well known at the time - but it never occurred to me that he might recognise me, so I just kept on stalking him, until he turned into an empty street, and it would just have been too obvious. So I went home. And I have never been more disappointed in myself. Then, shortly after, I found myself in the hairdressers, sitting next to a woman reading Elle magazine. She was reading very carefully - fashion, films, make-up, letters to the editor - everything was read with the most minute attention, until she came to a four-page article about me, which she flipped over without so much as a glance. I didn't know where to put myself. I spent the rest of the time trying to hide my face from her, in case she would see me, and know that I had seen her and aaargh! ..." Reza trails off, hot with shame at the memory.

The comedy of embarrassment is what drives The Unexpected Man, but the dominant key of the piece is a wistfulness, or as Eileen Atkins's character puts it, "a nostalgia for what has never happened".

"I have never been able to seize the moment, to get on top of time," says Reza, in the tantalised tone of someone thwarted in her search for the perfect handbag. "I'm always either looking forward to the next thing, or looking back on the past. Time is my obsession, my infirmity, an old wound that plagues me."

For Reza, who has a daughter and a son by the film-maker Didier Martin, motherhood has made her obsession even more acute: "Having children is a very strange experiment in time," she says. "You never see yourself or your friends, or even your parents growing older. But children are changing every day. Every day, you see moments you will never, ever see again. You can only look at them as you would look at a landscape out of the window of a train; you try to focus on a feature of the land, but already it's slipping away from you. My daughter is 10 now, and I keep saying to her, `Stay like that! I love you like that!' But soon she will be 12, and that is no longer really a child. Soon she will lose this smile that I love, this fabulous, frank smile that has no thought of seduction."

Seduction, you sense, is not a means to an end for Reza, but rather a way of life. "I am very, very, very feminine," she avers. "Women are in France. With some women," she says, naming no names, "there has been some, shall we say, confusion, between ideas and appearance. But I have always been impervious to such ideas. I consider feminism to be quite appropriate in social matters, but ... mais enfin, ca suffit!"

Certainly, she is not about to rehearse the usual lament about combining creative work with home life and children. "It's easy," she says, with an abracadabra smile. "The more I have to annoy me, the better I work!" She regrets however, that even in France, "one cannot pose for Vogue and be treated like a serious woman of letters".

"I have always played the glamour card to the full," she says, happily. "I much prefer to open the pages of Vogue or Elle or Marie Claire and see myself looking ravishing, than appearing in some learned journal, endlessly spinning out ideas. It is not the job of the writer, or the playwright to have ideas, but to interpret the world in front of them."

Reza's refusal to provide scholarly commentaries on her work is indeed a courageous stance in France, where the worth of a book or play is measured by the amount of analyses du texte it spawns. But Reza is not to be swayed.

"As a writer, you weigh your words, you spend time looking for exactly the words you need in your work. Why would you then use other, less carefully weighed words, to discuss them? It is a nonsense, a kind of ego trap for authors. I'm always being told that the image I present in magazines is just a mask, nothing to do with the real me. Well, of course it is! That's why I do it. Why on earth would I serve myself, my real self, up in a magazine article?"

There is no easy answer to this, but Reza pulls herself back from the brink with one last, titanium flash of charm.

"The truth is," she says, showing empty hands, "I have nothing to say"

The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
I'm not worried about United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
filmReview: Serena is a strangely dour and downbeat affair
Life and Style
The Zinger Double Down King, which is a bun-less burger released in Korea
food + drinkKFC unveils breadless meat beast
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Welsh Speaking Learning Support Assistant

    £70 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Welsh Speaking Learning Support Assis...

    SSRS Report Developer - Urgent Contract - London - £300pd

    £300 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: SSRS Report Developer – 3 Mon...

    KS1 Teacher

    £95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

    HR Business Partner - Essex - £39,000 plus benefits

    £32000 - £39000 per annum + benefits + bonus: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Man...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker