My mother stalwartly refused to be drawn into arguments with neighbours about conflicts between their offspring and any of her own children. In fact, I recall that my brother, sister and I were usually the ones summarily punished after quarrelling or fighting with other kids whether we were to blame or not. This tactic avoided social embarassment for my parents and ensured that my mother's relationships with her neighbours purred on as amicably as always.
The two sets of parents in this play might at least have thought about their strategy a bit more carefully before embarking on formal discussions about a fight between their sons. Because what starts as a genial encounter between a group of middle-class 'grown-ups', suddenly degenerates into almost all-out war between the 2 couples as well as between each husband and wife. A mere skirmish between 2 small kids thus escalates into a veritable battle between 4 much bigger ones.
Annette is in wealth management and her husband Alain is a lawyer who's also wedded to his mobile phone. Their hosts are Véronique, an art-loving, 'committed woman', and her husband Michel who owns a business that sells ironmongery and household items.
When 'God of Carnage' begins, the two couples - who have previously never met - are discussing the injuries sustained by Michel and Véronique's son Bruno after being assaulted with a stick by Alain and Annette's son, Ferdinand. The conversation is at frist polite and focuses on Bruno's dental injuries. Fairly quickly, it moves on to Ferdinand's reaction and whether he feels remorse and if he should apologise. Alain acknowledges that his son has done wrong, but his mousey and normally compliant wife (who Alain calls by the pet name of 'Woof Woof') does not take kindly to Véronique's suggestion that her son has been 'disfigured'. From thereon, the temperature rises and, lubricated by a bottle of fine rum, the civility declines. By the end of the play, the Vallon's living room is like a theatre of war, and the weary combatants are left slumped in disarray.
'God of Carnage' is a new play by French actress, director and writer, Yasmina Reza. Some of you may know her previous London hit, 'Art'. The same creative team is behind the current production. Christopher Hampton translated the piece under the watchful gaze of Reza herself. And once again, Matthew Warchus is in the director's chair with Mark Thompson as designer.
As my guest observed, it would be interesting to experience the play in its native language. I suspect it translates to British audiences as more extreme and explosive than it might do to French ones. In my experience, the French are much more open about their emotions and not nearly so reticent about airing their feelings in public. Still, as I can speak almost no French, the possibility of enjoying the play in its native tongue is denied to me at least.
A hugely entertaining and enjoyable comedy, there's certainly an element of farce in 'God of Carnage'. For example, when Annette throws tulips all over the Vallon's living room. But this isn't the trouser-dropping variety of farce. It's much more sophisticated and intelligent than that, and all the more powerful for it.
The quality of the acting here is superb with all the team turning in exceptionally strong, definitive performances. Ralph Fiennes is the cynical lawyer who calmly states that his son is 'a savage', yet collapses into catatonic shock when his mobile phone is 'disfigured' by his wife. Ken Stott is the ironmonger who tries to act as peacemaker but abandons all pretensions to reveal himself as 'uncouth' when he's accused of murdering his child's hamster. Janet McTeer tries to cling on to her civilised values as the 'cultured' Véronique but ultimately succumbs to the law of the jungle when she turns in lioness-like anger on her (now unwelcome) visitors. And Tamsin Greig makes a highly believable and amusing transition as the mousey Annette who finds freedom and power in rum, and turns into a kind of mischievous, giggling sprite.
If red symbolises passion, anger or intensity, there's all of that in abundance in 'God of Carnage' and it's reflected in Mark Thompson's economical, but clean-cut set design. Apart from a few pieces of furniture, the entire set is red, with the towering back and side walls all in the same fiery colour. Gaudy, but good.
Yasmina Reza's sharply observed and brilliantly-constructed comedy is quite simply hilarious and would dazzle even without such a glittering cast. I doubt that you'll find a comedy of this quality around elsewhere right now. And I don't think I've experienced any comedy in the past few years with so many laughs toppling over each other in almost every line. The rest of the audience seemed to find the play just as hysterically funny as I did.
So what is it really all about? There are messages about the role of parents and the problems children land on our plates. As Michel says, “children drag us towards disorder”. Maybe that's so. Véronique on the other hand has a social angle: “behaving well gets you nowhere”, she says. How true! And the cynic, Alain, has a wider and more jaundiced view of society: “Are we ever interested in anything but ourselves?” he enquires. Though these views are pretty forcefully expressed, the overall theme seems to be an analysis of middle-class values which are shown to be merely skin-deep, with a much earthier and selfish element simmering in the underlying strata. However, Reza's script also points towards deficiencies in society at large – how can we expect to get on harmoniously with other countries, when we can't even get on with the folks next door?
My mother would have regarded this witty and extremely funny play as ample justification (if any were needed) of her neighbourly strategies. And looking back, she might have been far wiser than I had imagined. Still, though her policy maintained the peace, we also never experienced the kind of raucous storm this quarrelsome episode produces. Looks like we missed a huge amount of fun!
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "God Of Carnage doesn’t stimulate much thought, but it certainly provokes rueful laughter." ALICE JONES for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Confusing and stilted production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Witty translation...deft production." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A crackling night of electrifying comic acting." ALEKS SIERZ for THE STAGE says, "Amusing? Yes, okay. Especially insightful? No, not really." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Tense, edgy and funny...I found myself delighted by her [Yasmina Reza] incisive observation, her acerbic wit, her shrewd humour – and her stunning cast."
Production photos by Alastair Muir