This is a disgusting and disquieting play – in the best possible way. As you might have guessed from the title, it is savage. It is far from easy-going entertainment, but its irony and absurdity put a smirk on my face in certain scenes: it is fun in a perverse way. There is no gore, but the release of tension is authentic and down-to-earth. After watching it, I felt liberated, even if emotionally exhausted. This play is effective, whether you like it or not.
God of Carnage is a modern play by the acclaimed French playwright Yasmina Reza, although it has already become an iconic masterpiece, resonating with the Theatre of the Absurd. The plot follows two married couples having a reunion to discuss the fight between their sons, in which one lost some teeth when the other hit him with a stick. Initially, the adults try to maintain a civilised conversation to sort it out, but the meeting spirals into bitter chaos, swirling with repressed marital problems, bigotry, and petty scoffs. Nobody is left unscathed – nothing is respected.
Even in this preview rehearsal, with myself as the only spectator, the actors gave it all they had, exuding the absurd barbarity that the text required. They all shouted at the top of their voices, hurled props around, and made a mess enacting the vomit scene – be prepared for vomit, among many other foul things, leaving the characters’ mouths with abandon.
Director Alex Matraxia pointed out how it was “cathartic” to put on this play and hoped the audiences would feel so too. The actors also remarked how fulfilling it was to break social norms, getting messy onstage. Considering that the play takes everyday life and well-rehearsed social standards as its basis, they exploit the modest limitations of a student production, keeping it ordinary, close to our reality, but still destroying our expectations of normality. Lee Simmonds said that it suits an audience of Oxford students well, “because you let yourself go bit by bit, until it gets crazy and animalistic, so it satisfies this urge to drop appearances and speak out what you feel, which is particularly necessary here in Oxford”. He is right.
The design was cleverly planned. Actors’ costumes are plain, but suggest emotions, with much black and some red. The set is whitewashed, so that in this apparently neat and clean environment the clashes (and vomit) will stand out more. Moreover, the atmosphere is claustrophobic throughout. It was partly because I was almost at arm’s length of the actors sometimes, in a smaller room, but it will surely be similar in the Burton Taylor Studio, with those high-strung characters stuck in the same place.
Yasmina Reza’s script drips with dark hidden feelings, so characters’ pathetic misogyny and stereotypes emerge, among other niceties, from both male and female characters. They did well in not hiding this. Nevertheless, there is brilliant irony in how the women had the most intense presence onstage, mostly thanks to Reza’s playwriting, but also because of the female actors (Joana Isabella as Véronique and Katie Cook as Annette).
They snarled, they talked over their husbands, they were reckless – probably more than the men (Alec McQuarrie as Michel and Lee Simmonds as Alain). Their performance shone while the men were anxious too, but didn’t reach such impact, as if holding themselves back slightly. The actors may switch from the civilised to the bestial mode too suddenly, except Véronique’s progression, but I’ll leave the benefit of the doubt, because in the preview they skipped minor scenes. Anyway, it surpasses most student productions.
If you get offended easily or are quite awkward and tentative in dealing with people, this play is calling to you. Still, everybody needs a bit of carnage in their lives, especially when you’re burning out in 7th week. Buy a ticket and find yourself becoming wonderfully disturbed.
God of Carnage runs at the BT Studio from November 21st to 25th