Minutes into “The Confessions,” a new production by the British playwright and director Alexander Zeldin, the main character, Alice, says demurely, “See, I’m not interesting. I have nothing of interest to tell.”
How many women have said as much before sharing piercing experiences? Thankfully, Zeldin didn’t take the woman on whom Alice is based — his mother — at her word. Instead, in “The Confessions,” which runs through Oct. 14 at the Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe, in Paris, he recreates her winding, painful path to a life of her own. (The show transfers to the National Theater, in London, and to the Comédie de Gèneve, in Geneva, later this fall.)
While Zeldin is best known for his “Inequalities” trilogy, which explored the damage that government austerity policies have inflicted on ordinary British people, he has increasingly turned to his own origins for inspiration. “A Death in the Family,” a French-language production he created in 2022, was partly inspired by the deaths of his father and grandmother. “The Confessions,” which is performed in English, is even more personal: In the final few scenes, Lilit Lesser plays a younger version of Zeldin, named Leander here.
Not that Zeldin’s modus operandi has changed. Just as he interviewed social workers and homeless families for the “Inequalities” plays, according to an interview in the playbill, he recorded lengthy conversations with his mother as the source material for this production.
“The Confessions” fits into an intriguing trend. Over the past few years, prominent male writers in France have been telling their mothers’ stories. In 2021, Édouard Louis published a short volume about his working-class mother, “A Woman’s Battles and Transformations.” The same year, the playwright Wajdi Mouawad, who is at the helm of the Théâtre National de la Colline in Paris, delved into his family’s exile from Lebanon from a similar point of view in “Mother.”
Zeldin states in the playbill that he, like Louis, was inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning author Annie Ernaux, and “The Confessions” openly reckons with the harm that patriarchal norms have inflicted upon women. The expectations of others keep thwarting Alice, an initially shy girl from Australia who inherited her father’s love of painting. Her art studies are deemed a failure, and her mother encourages a quick marriage to a stilted sailor. Alice eventually finds the courage to divorce and pursue her dreams, but then a prominent art historian corners her in an artist’s studio and rapes her.
The scope of “The Confessions” has led Zeldin to take a step back from his usual naturalistic style. The sets are less true to life, and two actors play Alice at different ages. The older Alice, Amelda Brown, acts as a discreet witness, often sitting in the orchestra seats along with the audience and wistfully closing and reopening the stage curtains between some scenes.
The younger Alice, Eryn Jean Norvill, first appears on a stage within the stage, where the character and her friends hide behind curtains as naval cadets chase them. An early scene with her father, who clearly wishes to support his daughter yet fails to help her, skillfully exemplifies how young working-class women are encouraged not to “get above themselves,” as Alice’s mother reminds her.
The storytelling then settles into an efficient pattern, going from episode to episode in Alice’s life, with Norvill subtly manifesting the character’s changes — skittish, then increasingly self-reliant. Yet it takes the traumatic encounter with the art historian for “The Confessions” to move into a higher gear.
Arrestingly, Zeldin doesn’t show us what happens. We see the man following Alice into the bathroom with the tacit approval of the artist hosting them, and a long silence ensues before she staggers out of the room, looking dazed.
It’s more chilling than any literal depiction of violence could be, and the unusual form of reparation Alice then seeks elevates “The Confessions” further. While Alice’s well-meaning friends in the art world advise her to simply move on, she asks to stay alone with her aggressor at a party. Then she orders him to undress and get into a bath with her.
Movingly, the scene is played by Brown, the older Alice, as her younger counterpart looks on. Suddenly vulnerable, forced to recognize the humanity of the woman in front of him, the man grows flustered, then cries softly.
“Mom, I had no idea,” someone says from the audience after that encounter. It’s the younger Zeldin, also acknowledging what his mother went through — an event that led her to leave Australia for Europe, where she met Zeldin’s father, a Jewish refugee. Brian Lipson beautifully embodies his kind awkwardness, up until his death when Zeldin was 15, but the focus remains on Alice — a woman whose “ordinary” life was anything but.
And there is hope in seeing Zeldin, like Louis and Mouawad before him, look back on his mother’s experiences with such care and empathy. “I feel like forgiveness is near,” the older Alice says at the end. The first step may be for men to listen, as Zeldin did.
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