Yazmina Reza's new play is basically a French, four-handed Vertical Hour. Instead of a father and son plus girlfriend it offers two couples who between them embody various ideological types across the political spectrum. Ralph Fiennes is Alain, a ruthless corporate lawyer, who is acting for a major pharmaceutical company facing one of those periodic outbreaks of bad news as one of their drugs proves to have some fairly disastrous side-effects. His wife, Annette (Tamsin Grieg) is in “wealth management” (cue both titters and knowing laughter from various parts of the audience. Perhaps also worth noting that the titters came from further back in the theatre). They are meeting up with well-to-do hardware wholesaler Michel (Ken Stott) and his impeccably liberal, arty writer wife Veronique, who is writing a book on Darfur.
The ostensible reason for their meeting is to discuss the small matter that Alain and Annette's son, has whacked Michel and Veronique's son in the face with a stick, knocking out two teeth and causing a good deal of consternation all round. The real reason for their meeting, of course, is that Yazmina Reza wants to shunt them all around the stage for an hour and a half to show us all something about how she reckons the world works.
Over the course of the play, we are treated to surprise revelations, bad behaviour, some drinking of brandy, worse behaviour, some spectacular on-stage vomiting and several cartloads of home-truths, all artfully served up on an impeccably tasteful minimalist red set (think Art, then change the colour). Michel, for example, moves from waxing cod-philosophical seeing humanity as “lumps of potter's clay - unformed” to railing at his wife's “infatuation with a bunch of Sudanese coons.” You get the picture. All this activity – and there's a fair old amount crammed in – amounts to another go at the furrow ploughed by last year's much-vaunted liberal-baiting The Pain, The Itch at the Royal Court; even down to using the execution of a household pet as a means to skewer the apparently liberal father (where does this recurring link between liberalism and animal cruelty come from?).
So, the son of a very wealthy couple both working in professions typically characterised as right-leaning (corporate law and wealth management) has smacked the child of a self-made man and a bleeding heart liberal in the face. Could it get any more obvious? Well, no; but it can get several layers more opaque. Allegiances form and crumble with surprising alacrity. Couple against couple, husbands against wives, various combinations of three against one; the whole piece starts to resemble one of those elaborate, regimented partner-swapping dances of the 19th century.
What's interesting here, is how the play shifts away from its original French assumptions in London's very different cultural climate. It is interesting, for a start, that Christopher Hampton's translation retains all the original French names and locations, and yet Matthew Warchus's direction has clearly ordered the actors to play their characters as British (three posh RP and one Scot). This decision skews the play's dynamics as what we see is some very English middle-class types moving very suddenly from buttoned-up middle class niceties to explosions of rage with a matter of minutes. Clichés about “Gallic froth” notwithstanding, if the characters had been played with even a hint of the culture from which they originally came, perhaps their actions would look a trifle less far-fetched.
The other interesting shift in cultural meaning is the question of whether London audiences are actually getting Reza's point. Of course where one's sympathies ultimately lie depends in part on one's own politics and worldview, but I was left with the impression that, to the sort of audience paying West End prices to see a new French play starring a number of more upmarket actors, the supposedly unsympathetic Alain and Annette appeared largely sympathetic throughout. Reza is a subtle enough playwright to offer shifts in perception – indeed such turns and reverses are the very substance of the play. However, I'm not sure that they all necessarily hit their mark. Perhaps the point of the play is that none of the characters are sympathetic, but at the same time, it seems as if Reza's impossibly do-gooding Darfur-worrying Veronique, is afforded considerably more sympathy by the script than by this audience.
Similarly, it was hard to tell whether the implicit equation of means of making money, the playground violence of children, the death by exposure of a pet hamster and the horrific slaughter in Sudan was a neat way of drawing themes together or an impossibly cheap and simple-minded running together elements of human experience into a parody of a moral to the story. The play is mostly well acted and well directed. The initial scenes are a bit stilted, but that could well be a stylistic choice – albeit one that doesn't come off terribly well. There is also a smattering of some good jokes. But there is a sense that Reza is really trying to get at something, to say something, with this play. And there is the sense that it remains largely unsaid in this production. Are we meant to conclude we should all be nicer? Or that chaos and carnage are an inevitable part of human existence? Or should we be wondering if secretly all liberals are only “moderate on the surface”? Whichever way, God of Carnage is a deftly executed, nicely produced piece of work, but one with ideas way above its intellectual range.