Despite an electricity failure which threatened to bring the marital warfare to an abrupt conclusion, the two couples in Yasmina Reza’s new comedy God Of Carnage continued their mutual self-destruction to the bitter – if liberating – end. Caroline Bishop was at the first night at the Gielgud theatre to see the fall out.
Upon the expanse of Mark Thompson’s vivid red set sit four people – two couples who have come together at one of their homes to discuss, with carefully constructed reason and politeness, why one couple’s son hit the other couple’s boy with a stick and knocked his teeth out. This is the scenario which French playwright Reza, in Christopher Hampton’s translation, uses to dissect class, gender, marriage and family values in 21st century middle class society.
You can recognise the slippery slope upon which these four people will slide from the beginning, when whatever feelings they truly have about their children’s behaviour are glossed over with a veneer of coffee and cake, small talk and poise. But it doesn’t make it any less enjoyable that you can see what is coming – a gradual slide from politeness into veiled digs, then emotional battles and near fisticuffs as the four tear into each other, ripping away all superficiality to expose the unhappiness and vulnerability beneath.
Let’s blame it on the men. While Janet McTeer’s politely forceful, preachy Véronique (mother of the toothless victim) and Tamsin Greig’s nervy Annette (mother of the stick-wielding child) at least attempt to have a sensible, smooth conversation about their sons’ behaviour, the men – particularly Annette’s lawyer husband Alain (Ralph Fiennes) barely disguise their disinterest. Rude yet suave, Alain makes no bones about having more important things to do than discuss his child, whom he readily declares a “savage”, while Veronique’s straight-talking salesman husband Michel (Ken Stott) does not give the discussion the weight his earnest wife feels it deserves.
Sparked by Alain’s incessant mobile phone calls and a spectacular fit of vomiting by anxious Annette, the civility dissolves into personal attack and bullying – pitting couple against couple and husband against wife – which reduces them to the level of the school playground. Except, unlike their children’s physical style of dispute resolution, the adults’ predominantly verbal battles seem all the more hurtful and destructive. And yet, with all pretence thrown to the wind, they seem to like each other better.
There is as much humour in the nuanced delivery of these four esteemed actors as in Reza’s lines themselves, and with its bouts of vomiting, handbag throwing and wanton tulip destruction, this is an enjoyable, attention-grabbing production. It may not be the first play to dissect the modern marriage, but, given the amount of juicy material the 21st century family seems to provide, it will not be the last. br />