Yasmina Reza: 'Please stop laughing at me'

Her play 'Art' earned $200m and was performed in 35 languages – yet the French writer Yasmina Reza doesn't get the respect she feels she deserves. Will a starry new play and a year in the intimate company of President Sarkozy bring her the kudos she craves?

Agnes Poirier
Sunday 16 March 2008 01:00

Her success may baffle some, yet for many it's the confirmation of Yasmina Reza's great talent. If God of Carnage, her latest play, is another triumph when it hits London later this month, her devotees will rejoice while others will take it as more evidence of a cultural demise and the victory of gimmickry over substance.

Like the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, whose every step she followed for a year, as detailed in her bestseller published in France last September under the rather grand title L'aube le soir ou la nuit ("Dawn Evening or Night"), Reza has become a divisive figure. Since her rise to international fame with Art, performed in 35 languages and grossing $200m, she has enthralled audiences while being branded the queen of "big ideas lite" and "little-black-dress theatre" by critics, who love resorting to the very same sophisticated cruelty that has become her trademark.

However, before mutual contempt soured the relationship, it was like a honeymoon. Surprised to see a French author spanning the cultural divide to make an international audience laugh, British and American theatre critics saluted her bravado and skill. At last, they sighed, a French author who isn't boring, doesn't ramble on, deploys a clear Cartesian plot and can keep to a 90-minute performance. Moreover, here is a French author who isn't too pompous, yet with just enough pretentiousness to remind the audience that the action takes place in Paris, and who can also squeeze elevated thoughts about death and sex between the jokes. But what they liked best was her wit. Across the Channel and the Atlantic, theatre critics had seen nothing like it since, who, Jean Anouilh? Or was it Molière?

Back in 1997, and aged only 37 – an abnormally young age for a successful French playwright – Reza spoke of living "a dream". I talked to her just before the opening of Art in London in October 1996, and her excitement was that of a debutante, fresh and childlike. For her, the London stage meant the world. "I know how seriously the British take theatre, how they love the written word, how critical they are. I feel incredibly honoured to have my play performed in London. There is simply no greater recompense."

Not only was her play performed in London, it went on to become a critical and commercial success, and what is often called a "cultural phenomenon". There were soon talks of a transfer to Broadway, thanks to Sean Connery who, after his French wife Michèle saw the play in French in Paris, snapped up the rights. The awards flooded in: the elegantly dressed petite author with Persian eyes scooped a Molière, an Olivier and a Tony.

The success of 'Art' wasn't, however, achieved by chance. It was the result of a carefully orchestrated plan. And all Reza's ensuing plays have kept to the same pattern with impeccable discipline. First rule: get the best translator, whatever the cost – somebody who understands the words, culture and humour. Even better, get somebody who is himself, arguably, an even better writer and playwright. For the English versions of Art and God of Carnage In Britain, it was Christopher Hampton. (Ask David Hare who he thinks is the more substantial of the two. He made it quite clear at the time that his friend Hampton might be wasting his time lending his talent to Reza.)

Second rule: know your milieu. Reza, who turned to writing after an unsuccessful bout of acting, knows the theatre world inside-out. She writes first of all for actors. Her American translator, David Ives, in an interview for American Theatre Magazine, agrees: "The truth is that half the reason her plays get done is because actors want to do them. Her plays are so chewy for actors. I think that colleges want to get their fingers into them because it's the kind of intellectual card game that students like to do. There's a crackling surface there for a performer."

Reza serves actors great parts, saucy lines and crunchy monologues on a platter. And they come back asking for more. Devising three-month runs for Art, each with a star cast, proved key to its success. Since big names can't commit to a longer run, the show would hit the refresh button every 12 weeks.

The first cast (Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Ken Stott) enjoyed themselves so much that every actor in Britain wanted to try their hand at it. Art became a must. After six years, though, the producers, having almost used up all possible combinations of the best actors in town, with more than 20 different casts, dug into the pool of children's TV presenters to keep the show running. Then came the last cast – the League of Gentlemen trio, Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith. They didn't impress critics and the play bowed out in January 2003. "All this evening proves is that a play as bland and flimsy as this requires actors who are not only heroically talented but who also have formidable skills," wrote The Guardian critic Lyn Gardner at the time. Still, it had sold out for six years.

Third rule: never forget theatre directors and managers; they too need help from a playwright. Reza always resolves to make their job easier – use no more than four characters and confine the action to a single set, a godsend for anybody running a theatre, and a dire necessity for regional venues.

David Ng, the American theatre historian who has investigated Reza's popularity in North America, reveals that, combined, her plays have seen close to 170 professional productions since 1998.

Theatre companies cite practical, even mundane, reasons for Reza's widespread popularity. The Heller Theatre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recently produced The Unexpected Man, a two-character drama she wrote in 1995. "Our set was just two benches that we bought at a hardware store," says Julie Tattershall, the theatre's artistic director. "It was a low-maintenance production." She adds that regional theatres with small budgets can afford to produce Reza's plays because they don't require large casts.

The Banyan Theater Company in Sarasota mounted a production of Life x 3 last year. "Reza has an inherent knowledge '

of how things work on a stage," says artistic director Gil Lazier. "I think audiences accept the intellectualness of her plays because her sense of the theatre is so natural. Of course, it helps us a great deal that most of her plays take place on one set."

The fourth rule has less to do with craftsmanship and more to do with an intangible quality: talent. For all those who would like to see Reza shredded to pieces and pilloried on the altar of Theatre, her success didn't happen by miracle alone. Her talent is simple, "robust" as Hampton calls it, and she can achieve one of the most difficult things: making people laugh at themselves.

In France, they call her humour Anglo-Saxon. She calls it Jewish. Others have described it as incisive, cruel, bitter, furious, narcissistic, compact, vicious and stinging. She does what her compatriots do best: she dissects the bourgeoisie with the playfulness and insouciance of a child discovering life by dismembering insects. She then crucifies her characters as a lepidopterist pins butterflies to a board. Anouilh carried out a similarly ruthless study of the French bourgeoisie only with more depth, as did French cinema through the pen and eye of Renoir, Chabrol, Truffaut and, more recently, Agnès Jaoui, whose work shares Reza's cruel sophistication

The fact remains that Reza writes well. She pulls no punches; the Muhammad Ali of French theatre. Sometimes, however, especially in her novels such as Desolation, Adam Haberberg and Hammerklavier, she loses herself in monologues with, according to her American translator, "long and complicated sentences punctuated by commas". He adds: "I don't think jokes happen on commas. Jokes happen on full-stops, because after the full-stop comes the laugh."

But cleverly translated and well acted, her monologues work well, either as fiction or drama – though not to everyone's satisfaction. The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani called Adam Haberberg's soliloquies "a late-night angry blogger's rant, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing".

But what should she care, as long as she makes people laugh? Strangely, she does care. Reza even resents seeing what she considers tragedies and dramas turned into comedies by British and American audiences. After attending the première of Art in London in October 1996, she turned to Hampton, half-amused, half-furious: "What have you done?" she asked him. In France, audiences hadn't laughed nearly as much.

As time went by, with her success secured, her irritation with audiences that did not take her words seriously grew. In 1999, she told The Los Angeles Times, "I would like to see them laugh at the right moments." A year later, she told another journalist, "Laughter is always a problem and is very dangerous. The way people laugh changes the way you see a play. A very profound play may seem very light. My plays have always been described as comedy but I think they're tragedy. They are funny tragedy, but they are tragedy. Maybe it's a new genre."

Her next play, Life x 3, was, in her words, a metaphysical play, but audiences throughout the world saw it as a farce. They loved it and she hated them for it.

For all the universal force of her wit, Reza remains deeply grounded in French culture, where seriousness is more highly regarded than laughter. And the real tragedy for Reza is that she isn't at peace with her success. She had hoped to be seen as a Gallic Pinter for whom silence is as important as words, as a female Pirandello or a twin sister to Beckett. Instead, she was compared with Alan Ayckbourn, and this didn't please her. The Times said she was a "mini-Proust", but she was not amused.

In France, amusement is regarded almost as badly as commercial success. The fact that "Yasmina Reza est très riche" (as Dominic Dromgoole, the artistic director of the Globe Theatre, put it in Full Room, his survey of contemporary playwrights) has never played well with French critics. The French elite doesn't mind if the public doesn't come to see your plays, as long as you have been endorsed by la profession.

Citizen Reza has yet to be elevated by her peers to the (imaginary) rank of chevalier du théâtre français. And she has always been in two minds about it: choosing either to flaunt the freedom success has brought her in the face of her detractors, or loudly resenting her exclusion from a pantheon where she insists she belongs.

Fed up with critics and her public whom, at times, she clearly despised, she turned to the figure of Sarkozy who, like most of her characters, is self-obsessed and pathologically ambitious. She followed him for a year during his presidential campaign and produced a portrait, both cruel and flattering, of an egotist child of a president. The book was a bestseller even before it hit the bookshops, yet she received no literary awards for it. Philippe Lançon in Libération wrote that Reza was the perfect mirror for Sarkozy as they are both "dry, unforgiving, ambitious, without doubt or subtlety, Balzacian species who love putting up a good show and whose willpower is their only redemption".

Again like Sarkozy, she hardly knew her father, at least as a child. A Moscow-born Persian Jew, he was an engineer with a passion for piano who married a Hungarian Jewish violonist. Reza once said that she got to know her father well only in her twenties until his death 10 years later. During those precious years, he became her best friend, whose dry wit she inherited. Does she crave the recognition of her peers as much as that of her père?

If she does, she certainly hides it well under a seemingly impenetrable Parisienne confidence. In a rare interview she gave about God of Carnage, she says, or rather declaims: "In Germany, I am quite highly regarded. A German theatre commissioned this play; I rose to the challenge and wrote it in three months." Asked whether she is a moralist, she replies: "It is not for me to say, but theatre is a mirror, a sharp reflection of society. The greatest playwrights are moralists."

Whether a moralist, trickster or great artist, Reza certainly knows how to treat her characters ruthlessly, as God of Carnage shows. The premise is simple, but the devil is in the details. One child hits another in the playground: both parents, middle-class couples who insist on keeping their dignity, meet to discuss the matter. Ralph Fiennes and Tamsin Greig play t he parents of the child who hits the son of Ken Stott and Janet McTeer. If you want to please Reza, don't come out of the theatre laughing; just look as if you are eternally doomed.

'God of Carnage' opens on 25 March at the Gielgud Theatre, London W1 (0844 482 5130)

The Collection

Foreign legion
Five French exports who crossed the Channel

Michel Houellebecq, Novelist, 50
Known for his nihilism, misogyny, nail-biting and chain-smoking, the author of Platform and Atomised is now an Irish resident

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Film director, 54
After the international success of Delicatessen and Amelie, he went on to direct the fourth of the Alien movies, Alien: Resurrection

Juliette Binoche, Actress, 43
Having mesmerised the world in Three Colours: Blue, she won an Oscar with The English Patient and then spent 10 years of her career in Hollywood. She is now back in Europe

Sophie Calle, Conceptual Artist, 54
Calle is known to follow strangers to the end of the world and to expose her private life in a never-ending art performance

Louise Bourgeois, Sculptor, 97
No words are grand enough to describe la grande dame of contemporary art, who recently donated her giant spider to the Tate Modern gallery

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