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 The Theatreguide.London Review


God of Carnage
Gielgud Theatre Spring 2008

 

This frequently hilarious, sometimes harrowing and startlingly insightful character comedy comes from the same team - author Yasmina Reza, translator Christopher Hampton, director Matthew Warchus, even the same producers - as Reza's play Art, which ran in the West End for something like 120 years.

This one could last as long, with the right nurturing, though the first cast is so strong you'll want to see it soon.

Anyone who has ever been in a group conversation or debate knows that allegiances and oppositions change constantly, so that you find yourself agreeing with someone on one point when a moment ago you were disagreeing with them on another. Reza takes that dynamic, intensifies it and condenses it, and turns it into pure thought-provoking comedy.

Two eleven-year-old boys had a fight, and one hurt the other. The victim's parents have invited the other parents to discuss the event and decide how to treat the boys. It is all very civilised and polite - for a while. But then things start running less smoothly.

The attacker's father is a lawyer, constantly on his mobile phone with a client, and he really isn't interested in a minor squabble his son got into. The victim's mother repeatedly lets slip a righteous indignation much stronger than her polite veneer suggests. The lawyer's wife is getting nauseous from the tension, and the other husband vacillates between not seeing what all the fuss is about and being annoyed by everyone else's intensity.

Each couple repeatedly finds their united front threatened by irrelevant personal bickering. At the edge of violence one moment, the two men find themselves united in boys-will-be-boys dismissal of the event the next. Every possible permutation among the four switches instantly and repeatedly from sympathy to enmity and back. And trying to keep up with the constantly surprising switches back and forth is the main source of fun for us.

Alongside this is the at-first slow and then snowballing disintegration of the polite and civilised calm of the opening scene, and we laugh as everyone onstage descends into farcically raw expressions of their uncensored emotions.

It is not just the fact that there are two couples and that, inevitably, some liquor is drunk that suggests a comic version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I'm not sure whether to credit playwright Reza or translator Hampton, but the script is full of direct invocations of Albee's text, both in events and individual lines. (Even the fact that Janet McTeer's voice gradually modulates into a throaty contralto evokes memories of Kathleen Turner in the Albee a few seasons back.)

Director Matthew Warchus creates a solid reality that accomplishes what is essential to farce - that everything is deathly serious to those onstage, even while we're laughing at them. And he also finds ways to involve physical comedy in ways that are new to Reza, who normally writes in such a word-centric style that her scripts might as well be radio plays.

Janet McTeer as the so-in-control hostess whose cracking is thus the funniest and Ken Stott as her less-cultured husband who therefore finds it easier to get down and dirty have the showiest comic roles. But Tamsin Greig, probably the only natural comic actor among them, milks all the fun out of the lawyer's wife, while Ralph Fiennes carries off the difficult job of straight man, as the lawyer who is not there emotionally and wishes he weren't there at all.

It's not perfect. It's essentially a two joke play - the constant shifting of allegiances and the breakdown of civility - and, while authors, director and cast keep the two jokes going longer than you might think possible, you might also begin to notice a bit of repetition as they run low on variations. The few half-hearted attempts at more serious philosophising all fall flat. And it doesn't really finish - it just stops abruptly when the playwright has run out of any more ways to milk the basic gags.

Still, you'll laugh a lot, and you'll recognise a lot of truth behind the comedy. And that's more than a lot of shows deliver.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

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Review - God of Carnage - Gielgud 2008