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God of Carnage

Sydney Theatre Company & Goldman Sachs JBWere by arrangement with David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers present GOD OF CARNAGE by Yasmina Reza, translated by Christopher Hampton at the Drama Theatre at The Sydney Opera House.

Yasmina Reza is a French playwright, a new first generation Frenchwoman, being the daughter of two Eastern European parents (Mother, Hungarian and Father an Iranian Jew, born in Moscow), a novelist and observer of contemporary life. (In 2006, Ms Reza was commissioned to follow Nicolas Sarkozy in a year long journey, and published in 2007 a book called DAWN, DUSK OR NIGHT about that invitation). Based in Paris, her plays, CONVERSATIONS AFTER A BURIAL, THE PASSAGE OF WINTER, ART, THE UNEXPECTED MAN, LIFE X 3, and A SPANISH PLAY, have been produced worldwide and translated into 35 languages. ART was the big international hit of 1996. Yasmina Reza has been called one of “the power houses of European writing in the last decade”. One has to agree on seeing this production.

Ms Reza’s latest play, LE DIEU DU CARNAGE (GOD OF CARNAGE), was commissioned in 2006 by the Berliner Ensemble , ”opened on 8 December 2006 at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich; in Paris on 25 January 2008 at the Theatre Antoine, directed by the author, with Isabelle Huppert; in London on 25 March 2008 with Ralph Fiennes…. and on Broadway in March 2009 with James Gandolfini, both of these productions directed by Matthew Warchus”, where it is playing still, with a Box office taking of almost $1 million a week!!! And now in Sydney for the Sydney Theatre Company with Marcus Graham, Sacha Horler, Helen Thompson and Russell Dykstra directed by Gale Edwards, translated into English once again by Christopher Hampton.

On reading this play I felt it to be amazingly clever and yet thought it a very difficult work to bring to life. Expertise in style by the Director and careful casting would be crucial to the success. Fortunately, Ms Edwards has found the way to deliver this text to us with great elan. The company of actors, generally, highly convincing and skillful.

Two sets of parents meet to discuss the aftermath of a fight between their young sons in a local park, which resulted in one of them attacking the other with a stick and causing physical injury. The play begins with “fraudulent politesse, gives way to toxic cavailing that generates into a brawl in the course of which all bluffs are called.” ( Judith Thurman- The New Yorker). The play has been called a “funny tragedy”, “fast, sharp, funny self mocking”, “both darkly enigmatic and wickedly funny”.

Reza as an outsider in her French culture (and perhaps being a woman in a very competitive occupation) “is a born satirist, and a gifted and wry observer of the absurdities and feints of social life”- with the cheeky ability to bait the bourgeoisie sitting in the theatre and causing us to laugh at situations that may be very close to the bone for each of us present.

Yesterday, we began by cautiously responding to the two couples, one representing a middle class comfort that belongs to a high flying lawyer and a”wealth manager”, the other, a hardware/kitchen business man and a writer/art lover involved in contemporary dilemmas such as Dafur. We took sides. We changed sides. We supported couples and then split them and empathised with individuals as the humans of this hilarious and yet extremely serious debate charted their way through the evenings travails. It is mostly just out right funny, sometimes even farcical, and, yet, as the title of the play might suggest also thoughtfully provocative. It is this ability to keep the audience comfortably entertained and then pointedly confronted with very big issues of the ethics of living in this very complicated world that mark this playwright as greatly interesting. Ms Reza deserves the accolades and the commercial success that has followed.

In interview Ms Reza says she sets out with the simplest of plans: to have a single set, a small cast, simple props, and in the long term, with an eye to an international success, to have a good translator. She is fierce in the defence of her work as written and is very particular about all the elements of the productions in the major capitals of the world. Her production partners find her notoriously difficult. How hands on Ms Reza has been about his production I do not know. For the most part, I’m sure she would be comfortable with this assured STC production.

The set by Brian Thomson is spare with a back wall of square patterns (It is used as screen in the first few moments of the play as we watch a black and white film of children playing in a local park-maybe gratuitous? [Stephen Toulmin]). The final moment when film is brought back and some of the panels of the back wall fall seems a directorial urge that is unnecessary and not ultimately telling in it’s intention. On a carpeted floor, two comfortable red lounges and a glass table decorated with a vase of tulips and impressive art books cover the space. The costumes (Julie Lynch) are astute choices for the milieu of the characters and helps chart the emotional collapse of the couple’s journeys. The lighting (Trudy Dalgleish) is a little obviously fussy (busy) and a little distracting – ominous shadows on the wall etc, including a gathering haze affect(?). The music composition and sound design (Paul Charlier) discreet.

The performances make up a very tight ensemble. Very impressive is Marcus Graham as Alan Reille, charting his way through a series of mobile phone calls and the gathering shenanigans in the room. There is elegant vocal and physical skill and complements his work in an otherwise disastrous Bell Shakespeare PERICLES, seen earlier in the year, in this same theatre. Directly opposed to him is a formidable and dogged Sacha Horler as the combative Veronica Vallon. Ms Horler’s performance the rudder of the drama of the play, a vitally intelligent performance enhanced by a mordant wit. Some of the most spectacularly funny moments are delivered by Helen Thomson as Annette Reille who begins politely and submissively, but with the “dutch courage” of alcohol finds a place in the “field” of carnage that is central to the “battle”. (One of my favourite moments concerns black leather boots, late in the play.) The last combatant, Michael Vallon, played by Russell Dykstra is deliberately directed as aspiring working class and although the choice of the broadly Australian accent generally works, it was for me the least successful decision. The characterisation was strong but the vocal music of this sensitively translated quartet of musicians/actors seemed to be slightly jarred as a result and the flow of the sounds encumbered with lengthier vowel sounds and rhythms gently misshaped the affect of the text. Timing was affected culminatively. The cast had to work harder to achieve the humour that is so delicately musically translated by Hampton.

The cleverness of the writing and translation, the ability to have us laugh at ourselves and yet cause a chastening of consideration of our personal culpability at the permitted behaviour of our elected governing bodies, locally and worldwide, over the major issues of our times is super subtle and worthy of admiration. The present refugee/illegal immigrant debate; the selling of materials at the risk of environment (WA); the great dilemma of what to do, how to solve climate change politics, all rise to consciousness as one walks out into the precincts of the Sydney Opera House and the glorious Sydney Harbour. It is not necessarily a comfortable feeling. Conscience and sense of personal responsibility is raised.

This is terrific theatre.

Playing now until 21 November.
For more information or to book click here.

2 replies to “God of Carnage”

  1. This was terribly conceived production. thoroughly disagree with the above. I find reviews of this kind very dangerous as it sends very mixed messages for young artists and the theatre they aspire too. Terrific text to play with was delivered with hammy, drag queen, two-dimensional performances with Helen the only one showing her acting chops in a monologue delivered with realism and spontaneity. However, these are good actors normally – so one must question the direction and this reviewer.

  2. I have to agree with the above comment. I felt this production was awful (ditto to the above reasons)!

    While members of the audience laughed around me, the humour of this was completely lost on me. I couldn't shake this nagging feeling something was lost in translation? I felt some of the choices, particularly with respect to the comic timings, just missed the mark completely.


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