Thursday 7 September 2023

Theatre review: God of Carnage

I hadn't initially booked for the Lyric Hammersmith's revival of God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza's follow-up to "Art" - I'd seen the original West End production of Christopher Hampton's translation, and remembered not being particularly fussed by it. A great cast made the difference when it was announced, and got me back to Reza's other story of insufferably upper-middle class people having a meltdown in a joylessly chic living room. Ladies and Gentlemen: The French. We're in Veronica (Freema Agyeman) and Michael Novak's (Martin Hutson) flat, where they're hosting Alan (Ariyon Bakare) and Annette Raleigh (Dinita Gohil) for the afternoon. The Raleighs' 11-year-old son Ferdinand has hit the Novaks' son Bruno with a bamboo cane in the school playground, knocking out two of his teeth.

The parents have got together to agree on a written statement about the incident to be delivered to the school, and are making sure it didn't contain any terms that upset either side.

It's all very friendly and polite, but the passive-aggression is already visible from the opening moments, and as they let little scraps of their true feelings on the matter sneak through, the aggression comes out without the passive part. The heavy-handed point here is that this might be a story revolving around children but we don't need to see them on stage, as the adults are more than childish enough. They casually reveal appalling truths about themselves - Michael recently snuck his daughter's hamster out into the street to die, lawyer Alan spends half his time on the phone instructing a pharmaceutical company on how to hush up the fact that their new drug is dangerous - and that's before they even start to get drunk.

I think the production validates both my instincts, to avoid it on the basis of the play, then to change my mind for the cast. Reza's play really isn't that strong: There's a limit to how long we can spend with utterly irredeemable characters and God of Carnage goes way past it. They're the kind of bourgeois characters a British audience will laugh at as a ghastly French stereotype*, and no doubt goes down equally well in most of France as their view of Parisians (before the show Ian commented how uncomfortable the sofas looked, which I'm sure is the point, chosen because they're fashionable rather than to be lived on.)

The attempts to be edgy are clumsy as well: A comic centrepiece sees Annette projectile vomit over the living room, and Michael is suddenly a massive racist at the end with no buildup, presumably just because throwing an offensive word into the script is attention-seeking. And while storytelling tropes aren't necessarily bad, the shortcuts Reza uses are clichéd and obvious - the phone calls that dispense entirely with pleasantries and go straight to exposition every time†; the characters going from 100% sober to 100% drunk as soon as they take a single sip of rum.

Still, Nicholai La Barrie's production hit on something that made it work for me, and that's playing up the ludicrous self-importance of everyone on stage: Everything they argue about is utterly insignificant, but it's played operatically, which for me made the comedy land a lot more often than it had any right to. (For Ian it was nowhere near enough, and characters with no redeeming qualities in something too close to farce‡ for his liking meant an unsalvageable evening for him.) The slow revolving set from Lily Arnold and imperceptibly sinking floodlights from Richard Howell add to the sense of preposterous seriousness, although I could have done without the lamps and decor constantly hoving into view to block the actors.

But when you can see them their performances are great: Agyeman typifies the operatic style with Veronica only really having two gears, of terrifyingly over-friendly passive-aggression and full-on drama queen§. Hutson's Michael operates on a level of nervy hysteria, and Bakare has some funny nonplussed reactions to his bizarre non-sequiturs. Unfortunately I have to mention the conditions in the theatre, because the evening might have gone by a lot faster if the Lyric's air conditioning had been more effective‖ and hadn't left me gently parboiling in my own sweat. I remembered God of Carnage as not being anywhere near as good as the many plaudits and awards it originally got would suggest, and that's definitely a correct memory. But La Barrie's production goes some way towards redeeming its weakness.

God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza in a version by Christopher Hampton is booking until the 30th of September at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: The Other Richard

*and that's not on us to be honest, if the French don't want us to think they're these people then it would help if every Reza and Zeller play they send over wasn't populated by them

†fine once or twice, but he takes dozens of calls over the show so it becomes painfully obvious what's being done

‡he wanted to call the show a farce but I disagreed, and got him to agree to meet in the middle and say it had farcical elements; if you can stage a play on a set without any doors, it's probably not a farce

§also Freema Agyeman is apparently FORTY-FOUR, which is a mere 4 years younger than me, and I know that obviously some people take better care of themselves than others, and pretty much everyone takes better care of themselves than I do, but at some point you've got to consider that some people might have actual deity DNA

‖I assume there was actually some attempt at aircon, in that every half an hour or so there was a slight breeze from above, like if a ghost had farted

No comments:

Post a Comment