Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
God of Carnage
By Yasmina Reza; Directed by Gale Edwards.
Reviewed October 8, 2009
“I believe in the God of Carnage; he’s ruled since the dawn of time.”
Like a long-burning fuse, you can see where Yasmina Reza’s play is going from the outset – but it doesn’t make the spectacle any less transfixing. Two couples have come together to discuss a playground incident in which one eleven-year-old boy beat the other with a bamboo pole, knocking out two of his teeth and causing potentially permanent “nerve damage”. Things start off in a civilised tone, which quickly reveals itself to be quite strained, before sliding at an increasing rate into violence and destruction.
The setting is the sitting room of Michael and Veronica Vallon (Russell Dykstra and Sacha Horler), whose son Bruno is missing the teeth. They have invited the parents of his “attacker”, Alan and Annette Reille (Marcus Graham and Helen Thomson), for coffee and cake – and what else? The antiseptically modern sitting room becomes a petri dish for a very messy, primal emotional experiment.
Reza wants to test some common assumptions – like the proportionate relationship between age and civilisation; or the civilising influence of culture and the arts. Subconsciously or not, she also reinforces some of the broadest generalisations, about gender and class.
Dressed in tones of blue, the Vallons are blue-collar middle-classers: he has a wholesale company; she is a writer, a lover of art, and works in a bookshop. Dressed in black and white, the Reilles are lovers of money: he a lawyer, and she a wealth manager. They have a right-wing laissez faire attitude to discipline; they don’t care why their little Ferdinand did what he did, they just want to punish him and move on. The Vallons, on the other hand, believe in rehabilitation, and the importance of causes and apologies.Reza’s script does not keep the respective couples on opposite sides of the stage or battle, however: throughout the course of the evening, the women will unite against the men and vice versa; Mr Reille will feel a passing affinity with Mrs Vallon – which shifts to sympathy for her husband; Mr Vallon will temporarily ally with Mrs Veille to try and pacify their more “aggressive” spouses. The ladies will prove more susceptible to emotional booze binges; the men will favour reason over empathy.
To the extent that there is truth in stereotypes, there is also humour, and God of Carnage is darkly humorous, about relationships, about modern litigious society, and certain gender and class stereotypes. You all know people like this, although perhaps not in this amplified state of obnoxiousness.
Where it cuts closest to the bone, perhaps, is it’s convincing thesis that we really are savages underneath the pacifying influence of culture. To this end, the play finishes with an aggressive bang, rather than a philosophical wimper.
The performances are very strong here, even if Dykstra seems to be playing to type as a working class boofhead. Horler is a slightly hysterical and self-righteous middle class mother; Graham and Thomson are fantastically diabolical as the streetwise and ultra-cynical Shylock and the slightly sozzled and self-loathing middle class twit. Throughout the play, her attempts at a refined accent slip sideways like morning-after mascara.
Intelligent and visceral (read: vomit), an indictment of our western liberal-democratic middle class hypocrisy and perhaps even civilization itself, this is a feisty entertainment.