Sunday March 30, 2008
God of Carnage Gielgud, London W1 & Théâtre Antoine, Paris
Even when things go wrong for Yasmina Reza, they produce a theatrical frisson (she's French). Two-thirds of the way through the first night of her new play, the lights dipped suddenly (the cast carried on so blinklessly that the twilight could have been taken for part of the story) and a Porlocky person emerged from the wings to announce an electrical failure. Was this postmodernism? We were, after all, watching the work of a continental author. Then Cameron Mackintosh (theatre owner) and David Pugh (producer) appeared to say that after a pause the Show Would Go On. So there were cheers and clapping and Blitz spirit, and the enjoyable sense that a story had been born and a premiere turned into an event. People love it when something collapses in the theatre - though perhaps they love it more when they aren't paying for their seats.
Reza is a phenomenon, a phénomène, a Phänomen, a fenómeno. Her plays have been translated into 35 languages; the most famous, Art, ran in London for six years, with more than 20 different casts, starting with Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Ken Stott, and going on to include Jack Dee and The League of Gentlemen. Last year (in pre-Carla Bruni days), Reza wrote a best-seller about Nicolas Sarkozy in which she managed to be both sugary and sharp.
Now her new play, God of Carnage, first seen in Zurich, is being staged on both sides of what used to be the Channel and is now the Tunnel. At the Théâtre Antoine in Paris, in a production directed by the playwright, Isabelle Huppert is as intricate on stage as on screen: she's that extraordinary thing, an alluring study of affectation; her constantly working hands and facial expressions seem to be engaged in a tango. In Shaftesbury Avenue, a line-up of Reza-sharp actors - Ralph Fiennes, Tamsin Greig, Janet McTeer and Ken Stott - guarantees and justifies full houses.
As always with Reza, everything hangs on the casting. She's a writer for the stage not the page: a creator of vessels for actors to fill. Performers of her work will have to look hard for an unforgettable pungent phrase (has anyone ever said: only Yasmina Reza could have put it like that?), but not at all hard for singular theatrical shocks, shrewd circumstantial detail and soliloquies that give them a moment in the sun with a big central subject.
It's no surprise (and not just because the title tips you off) that God of Carnage - in which two middle-class couples meet to discuss and heal a spat between their sons - turns on the idea that adults are no more evolved than kids, that the bourgeoisie, groomed and courteous on the surface, are beastly underneath. It would take a really radical playwright to speak up for the middle classes, and Yasmina Reza is the opposite of that. The central image of her play is a tinkling irony: a pet hamster, hated by one of the dads, is dumped in the gutter where it proves as unable to cope with life outside as it was with life in a cage: the creature is neither wild nor tame.
Reza's disgruntled quartet are hamster-like. The most visceral of their deeds may look alarming in a sitting room, but they boil down to no more than angry rearrangements of décor. These are, nevertheless, acts of exposure. The clafoutis-baking mother who goes on about Darfur (Janet McTeer is majestic and ridiculous in an embroidered skirt and sincerely-deep voice) dismantles her peaceful, understanding profile when she hurls her guest's handbag across the room.
Tamsin Greig, a second wife in a too-smart suit, comes on with little-girl tilts of the head and wispy voice, and ends by shredding dozens of expensive Hockney-style tulips and plunging her husband's mobile into a vase. Thank God Debbie in The Archers has gone back to her suspicious-sounding lover in Hungary: the stage has gained a sly and slinky actor.
She's astute, is Reza. Her dialogue is often fraudulent (McTeer announces that she has no sense of humour - the one thing to which no one ever admits) but it's also sprinkled with legal-like wit (was one boy 'armed' or merely 'furnished' with a stick?). Her often languorous action is punctuated by sure-fire devices: you can't fail to impress with mobile-phone jokes in the theatre - nor with projectile vomit.
The very faintness of the characterisation is a spur to actors, to show what they can do. A lot, as it happens. Fiennes radiates contempt (his mouth and legs are always open) as a shark-faced lawyer who, wrapped up in defending a dodgy medicine, is like an MP in a sex scandal, compelled to spend time with his family. Stott is the most patronised character, and the most powerful: genial, raging and disappointed.
In Paris, the action takes place in front of a concrete wall split by a huge crack; there are animal howls as the lights go down at the end of the evening. Matthew Warchus's London production is less savage: Mark Thompson's scarlet set is
not riven, but wrinkled with tiny fissures; there is no baying. Reza gets something of a makeover in London, where Christopher Hampton's terrific idiomatic translation turns every insult into an elegant joke: the playwright, who worries that British audiences laugh at her plays (she thinks of them as tragedies), may not like that.
Thanks to Nahal