Sunday, March 01, 2009

Theatre: God of Carnage

Arts Theatre, Cambridge, 28/2/2009.

Yes, it's been rather a theatrical month round here. God of Carnage is by French playwright Yasmina Reza, who was also responsible for Art, which I saw a few years ago. The story goes that Reza proclaimed herself bemused when Art (in translation) won a Best Comedy award, as she thought that she was writing a tragedy; well, if God of Carnage wasn't originally intended as a comedy, then the translator, Christopher Hampton, must have added a lot of jokes in the course of his work (which is possible, I guess). But it also wants to be a bit more than "just" a comedy.

Mind you, this production sells on more than Reza's name, with a cast including the ever-wonderful Richard E. Grant, plus Roger Allam (not a name I recognised, but his face is familiar from lots of British TV, and he's good), Serena Evans, and Lia Williams. The plot is more setting-specific than that of Art - this is very overtly a story of the Parisian bourgeoisie, with lots of specific details - and tries rather hard to expose bourgeois failings. Two couples meet to discuss the fact that one of their young sons has beaten up the other, in an atmosphere of strained civility, and things naturally go downhill quickly from there. This collapse is predictable, and not just because it's necessary for the play to exist; one of the men rapidly demonstrates an appalling mobile 'phone addiction, while the other mentions an incident involving a hamster without realising how badly it shows him up... These aren't really civilised people.

Mind you, I'm not sure what sort of people they are. The mobile 'phone junkie is a lawyer who is dealing with a problematic corporate case, but he also seems to have some kind of background in international criminal law; one of the women is a mild-mannered liberal housewife who has somehow written a publishable book about Darfur. I had a slight sense that they had whatever features the plot demanded.

Which plot does dearly want to be taken seriously. This isn't just four people getting into screaming comedic rows, you understand; it's a picture of the flaws and dishonesty that fail to disguise the weakness and savagery of humanity. We're supposed to take the play's title seriously, you see; God is a god of carnage. Oh dear; I'm not actually sure that a four-hand, one-act bourgeois comedy can really support the weight of all this, and throwing in references to real, unspeakable tragedies like Darfur to add weight could just look dangerously crass. But perhaps I'm being too Anglo-Saxon about this. And it is rather a good bourgeois comedy.

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