Hans-Jürgen Bartsch in Berlin
The staging history of Yasmina Reza’s Trois versions de la vie (literally: Three Versions of Life) began in the autumn of 2000 with an unusual opening: the play, the author’s fifth work for the theatre, was not premiered on a French stage as one would expect of a new play by the country’s most popular contemporary playwright. Translated into German by Eugen Helmlé and directed by Luc Bondy, it began life as Drei Mal Leben in Vienna on 29th October 2000 at the Akademietheater, the Burgtheater’s second stage. Parisians had to wait another week for the first création française at the Théâtre Antoine (with Reza herself playing one of the four roles).
Constanze Becker (Sonja) and August Diehl (Hubert).
Photo credit: Jörg Brüggemann.
The play quickly conquered stages worldwide. Already in December 2000 it opened in London at the National Theatre as Life x 3 in a translation by Christopher Hampton, followed in March 2001 by a premiere in Berlin at the Renaissance-Theater, the first performance of Drei Mal Leben on a German stage. Two months later, Berliners also had an opportunity to discover the original production of the Vienna Akademietheater when it was invited to the Theatertreffen festival as one of ten “remarkable” German-language productions during the 2000-2001 season.
Since then, the play has regularly featured in the repertoires of Berlin’s theatres, most recently at the Berliner Ensemble where Andrea Breth directed a revival in 2,020. Three years later it is still showing — once or twice every other month (most recently this January) — and is still ensuring the theatre a resounding box office success.
Like Reza’s other plays, Drei Mal Leben is theatrical entertainment of its own kind. To describe it merely as a comedy would not do justice to Reza’s unique talent for mixing humorous dialogue and risible situations with pungent, often acerbic, observations on human relationships. Here she analyzes the professional and personal relations between Henri, an aspiring astrophysicist, and Hubert Finidori, the director of the research institute where Henri is employed. Both pose as old chums, but are in fact fierce professional rivals, as we learn by watching them in three ingeniously constructed variations of a fraught social evening. Planned as a convivial dinner party to which Henri and his wife had invited the Finidoris, the get-together takes an unexpected course when the guests arrive a night too early, catching the hosts unawares. Guests and hosts have to make do with crisps, chocolate fingers … and a rather generous supply of alcoholic drinks that leaves the quartet inebriated by the end of the evening.
The opening scene takes us straight in medias Reza: Henri’s wife Sonja, a lawyer and successful manager (Constanze Becker) is lounging on a settee in her dressing gown, reading a book and visibly enjoying a quiet evening at home, when her husband (Sasha Nathan) returns from their son’s bedroom to announce: “He wants a biscuit”. With the authority of a strict mother, she rules: “No food in bed!” Henri’s suggestion to give him an apple to stop him whining is refused on the ground that he has already brushed his teeth. But the six-year-old (whom we never get to see on stage) is undeterred and continues to exacerbate his parents’ marital discord over correct childminding: he wants his mother to give him a cuddle, to read him a story, and to put him to sleep with a lullaby.
With the arrival of the Finidoris, the tone of the conversations changes quickly, from small talk to sneering remarks and finally to an aggressive confrontation. As Benedict Nightingale said in his Times review of the London premiere of Life x 3: “Everyone is playing get-the guest or get-the host”. Hubert Finidori, a smug, arrogant and insolent macho (August Diehl) takes pleasure in presenting, and treating, his wife Ines (Pauline Knof) as a dim-witted beauty queen. Towards Henri, he adopts the attitude of a patronising boss who is in control of his colleague’s career. As Inis tells Sonja in confidence: “Hubert told me that your husband’s promotion depends entirely on his support”. To humiliate Henri, he mischievously spreads the rumour that a Mexican astrophysicist was about to publish the results of his research on galactic halos – exactly the subject of Henri’s three-year long research which is about to be published. Feigning sympathy, he tells Henri not to worry, assuring him that as a permanently employed scientist he cannot be given notice. The deeply depressed Henri reacts with sarcasm: “Lucky me, I am a looser who cannot be fired”. Before the Finidoris leave, Sonja reports from her little boy’s bedroom: “He says we keep him from sleeping”.
In the second version, we are invited to the turbulent end of the soirée when Hubert shows off his talents as a philanderer: he takes Henri’s wife aside, kisses her and invites her to a clandestine lunch à deux, but Sonja rebuffs his advances with a warning: “I tell my husband everything”. A few glasses too many have helped Inis Finidori to gather courage for an attack on her unfaithful husband. No longer the shy and amenable wife, she lights a cigarette and then cheekily asks her husband: “May I smoke?” To annoy him even more, she goes over to Henri and sits on his lap, forcing Hubert to carry her back to her seat. We have witnessed the revolt of an unhappily married and humiliated woman. And Henri, by now sloshed, attacks and insults his boss like someone who has nothing to lose.
Lest we forget that we are watching a comedy (if a Reza-style comedy), the third variation of the story finishes with a happy ending for the two adversaries: Henri receives a phone call informing him that the results of his research are about to be published, and Hubert proudly announces that he has been admitted to the Academy of Science. Overjoyed, Henri embraces and kisses his wife and congratulates his boss on this “extraordinary honour”. As he hasn’t received any request from his son’s bedroom, he has the last word before the stage goes dark: “Is he asleep?”
Thanks to a cast at the top of their game, the hundred-minute evening is never less than fascinating. My only quibble: whereas Reza has seamlessly blended jocularity and seriousness in the exchanges, here they are often presented alternatively as either jocular or serious.