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

Friday 21 March 2008 01:00

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

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