Yasmina Reza’s characters enjoy a good argument, don’t they? In Art (admittedly the only other Reza play I’ve seen) friendships get destroyed over the purchase of a painting. In God of Carnage two couples meet to discuss a fight their sons had, that resulted in one of them losing a couple of teeth. Unlike in the first play, these people have never met before so don’t have established friendships at risk; however, by the end of the play any pretence at middle-class politeness and structured problem solving has gone right out of the window.
Alan and Annette are at a disadvantage though; not only is it their son, Ferdinand, who has committed the alleged attack, they are at the “away ground” that is Bruno’s parents’ (Veronica and Michael) living room. Veronica is in charge of negotiations – Michael is obviously just there for back-up – and Alan (a pharmaceutical company lawyer) is playing a subtle defensive bat looking to disallow inappropriate words and assumptions. Annette is the soul of politeness and impeccable behaviour until she has an unfortunate attack of nausea – with explosive results. It’s the kind of nightmare event that, unless you were with good friends, would be absolutely impossible to overcome and your relationship – whatever it was – could never be the same again. While Veronica and Michael are clearing up the mess, Alan overhears them laughing at their guests’ awfulness – and that’s the cue for the arguments really to begin.
If you’ve read some of my other theatre reviews, gentle reader, you will know that I tend to question productions that don’t have an interval. I love an interval. It’s a chance to reflect over what you’ve seen in the first half and consider what might happen in the second half; on a practical level it’s the opportunity to stretch your legs, nip to the loo, have a drink or an ice-cream and indeed wake yourself up if the first half has been dull. It’s also an opportunity for the theatre to make some money from bar sales – don’t knock it, they need to raise revenue for the good of us all. So if there’s no interval – as in this case – I ask myself why. If it’s a good reason artistically – as in the recent Bully Boy – then so be it. If there’s no particular reason apart from wanting to go home fifteen minutes earlier – as in the Menier’s revival of Educating Rita – then it’s very annoying. There’s no doubt in my mind that God of Carnage could not sustain an interval – but that’s because at 90 minutes duration it is, in my mind, about 30 minutes too long and would be much better off as a classic one act play, ideally to be shown together with another one act play either side of an interval.
I felt that once the initial scenario is played out – polite discussions of children’s delinquency which gets overtaken by the parents’ falling out over it – there really wasn’t very much further that the play could go. Yes, the characters are revealed as more selfish, bigoted and generally unpleasant than you might have thought them at the beginning, but I didn’t feel they were sufficiently developed so as to give you a greater insight into the human condition. There is a sense of a sex war going on, as the men find a certain understanding between them over a glass of excellent rum, whilst the women, descending into drunkenness and abandon, commit acts of violence and destruction on the men. As Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, these sequences are funny in themselves but would not have been so had the acts been committed by the men on the women. As a study of a polite group of people turning against themselves because of underlying bigotry, this is no Clybourne Park; and as a study of hosts turning on their guests to mask their own unhappy relationship this is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the play; it was fine; I just wasn’t challenged by it in the way I’d hoped.
Technically it’s a very good production. We both admired the set’s back wall of individual tulips, like a vertical garden, cleverly lit so that it looks as though they are either leaning inwards either in support of each other or sparring with each other. The change to red lighting gave an eerie sense of blood, which was quite alarming. Otherwise it’s a simple, narrow set, with a floor sloping down towards the audience, giving you a slightly uncomfortable sense of imbalance, visually underlining the claustrophobia and the inevitability of things (handbag contents, vomit, for example) toppling down towards you. There’s also no doubt that the play’s coup-de-theatre, the nausea attack, was achieved brilliantly believably and with delightful messiness.
The four characters are all very well acted by the highly talented cast. Sian Reeves as Veronica is perfect as the super-polite hostess with the hidden agenda of coercing her guests into accepting full responsibility for the “disfigurement” to her child. She does a very nice line in smugness about her writing achievements and goes scarily maniacal as she is let down by her husband later on. It’s a very funny performance.
As her more down to earth husband Michael, James Doherty has an excellent set piece early on when he talks about hamstergate, and his inability to understand why no one agrees with him on this is very funny. He absolutely gets that sense of rivalry with his more educated foe Alan, and when he becomes simply angry at all the shenanigans his portrayal of that anger is very clear, straightforward and believable.
Simon Wilson’s Alan, enthralled to his Blackberry, is a very credible ruthless lawyer who requires that the world bow down to his requirements. He has a superb inscrutable look and you can just imagine that he has workplace bullying down to a fine art. When Annette takes his communication lifeline away he is completely lost and powerless – all that’s left is his husk. You’d feel sorry for him if the arrogant wretch didn’t deserve it so much.
And Melanie Gutteridge as Annette lives and breathes every moment of the play – her social dilemmas of when and what to say whilst they’re all being polite; suffering the embarrassment of vomiting everywhere; beginning to stand up to her hosts as they accuse her son unfairly; taking revenge on her husband; and finally trying to find a way forward out of the mess. She’s superb. On the night we went, she was still brushing away real tears during curtain call.
All in all some very good elements make up an entertaining evening, but for me the play was a bit disappointing; too long for a one-acter and lacking a decent denouement, but with four very committed performances.