Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage has always been a divider of opinion, it’s original Broadway run picked up three Tony’s to add to the Olivier it won in London, but subsequent productions have never been met with the same reception. Now, Nicholai La Barrie revives the play at Lyric Hammersmith.
Reza’s original was written in French and has been translated by Christopher Hampton. The problems that exist with God of Carnage have therefore been attributed equally to playwright and translator, and when you consider that the audiences watching this obvious comedy are probably unaware Reza never considered it as such, you start to understand where things may have gone wrong.
The plot is reminiscent of the kind of bourgeois entitlement you might see on an episode of Judge Judy (I use this example as the exact same scenario did in fact play out in Judge Sheindlin’s courtroom in one of last weekend’s repeats). In God of Carnage, two 11 year olds have had a fight in the local park, the result is that Ferdinand has knocked out two of Bruno’s teeth, and now the parents have come together to try and sort it all out.
As the alcohol flows, the behaviour of the parents becomes increasingly worse, escalating to a verbal and physical violence that puts the dental mishap between Ferdinand and Bruno firmly in the shade. There is a comic element to it all, the violence, vulgarity and even vomiting all played for laughs. Though Reza’s original vision is allowed to come through; the adults behaving ‘like children’ and the increasing sense of self importance and one-upmanship eventually leads to the kind of chaos to which the title alludes.
Nicholai La Barrie’s production does navigate or negate some of the issues that come with this play. But it does become apparent there are problems with the script, either that or there’s a lot lost in translation. The characters veer off in all different directions for no apparent reason; Alan is a brutish lawyer, doling out sarcastic wit and misogynism in equal measure, yet becomes a simpering fool when his mobile phone is damaged. It’s all gets very melodramatic at times but without sufficient context, and too many lines are left simply hanging.
Lily Arnold’s slowly rotating set is the epitome of sophisticated minimalism. Veronica is a writer and carefully placed artefacts sit alongside the tulips bought especially for the occasion. The expensive coffee table books might encounter an unfortunate end, but it all comes together to perfectly create this suburban life, where both home and inhabitants have ideas above their station.
As the Novaks, Freema Agyeman and Martin Hutson easily portray the dual sides of the characters, from convivial hosts to warring couple. Soon allegiances change and Veronica (Agyeman) is siding with Dinita Gohil’s Annette, and there’s a nice chemistry between the two. Equally, Michael (Hutson) begins to support Ariyon Bakare’s Alan, and while they remain problematic characters, Hutson and Bakare do give us something to work with.
But that is probably the biggest niggle with God of Carnage, the behaviour of the characters begins to stop making sense, and it feels like the writer sacrificed character (and sometimes story) development for the sake of getting to the final scene.
However, this God of Carnage is somewhat saved by strong direction, and whether it’s supposed to be a comedy or not, it certainly does have some very funny scenes. Yasmina Reza’s themes shine through and despite the issues with the characters we can probably all recognise them, this is ultimately an enjoyable revival with a talented cast.