God Of Carnage – Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Yasmina Reza. Translated by Christopher Hampton

Director: Nicholai La Barrie

Fresh from a huge hit with their revival of The Accidental Death of An Anarchist, the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre has brought back another dark and moody European tragicomedy, in this case, Yasmina Reza’s Paris-set chamber piece God Of Carnage. The play won both Olivier and Tony awards back in 2009. A major Theatre Royal Bath production in 2018, set in London, went nowhere. Will director Nicholai La Barrie’s version, with the setting returned to Paris and the humour foregrounded at the expense of the work’s palpably bitter edge, fare better?

Ferdinand is 11. He wants to join classmate Bruno’s school gang, but the latter thinks the former is a “grass” and declines the request. Ferdinand, “armed” (his parents prefer the word “furnished”) with a stick takes out two of Bruno’s front teeth. It is an act of aggression that might have been on purpose or might merely have been a child’s misstep.

The two sets of parents, on the surface sensible and civilised, come together to negotiate a way to resolve their progenies’ conflictive urges. Instead, it is the parents who spiral down into a bitter evening of drunken, violent, score-settling, fuelled by copious amounts of vintage rum, projectile vomiting, and an ominous-looking stainless steel cake slicer. By the end of the show, the only thing these four agree on is that this may be “the unhappiest day of my life”.

Freema Agyeman plays Bruno’s perma-smiling, passive-aggressive mum Veronica. She writes art history, wears Dolce and Gabbana, thinks of herself as an expert on African culture, and keeps a stack of unfeasibly rare art books on her coffee table. Veronica picked up a tribal mask on her most recent trip to the Congo. Lighting designer Richard Howell shines a spotlight on it at the outset of the play making the point that, for all their civilised veneer, when these people’s masks slip, monsters are revealed.

Agyeman thumps her hands on her chest, gestures wildly, and oozes melodrama. Her shifts between bombastic histrionics and tearful self-justification, as she entwines herself tight as a boa-constrictor around her husband, offers the show’s best performance. “Behaving well gets you nowhere,” she says acidly at one point, and she means it.

Veronica’s husband Michael, played with a kind of chirpy malevolence by Martin Hutson, is something big in houseware sales. Lily Arnold’s gorgeous set, a revolving uber-minimalist, black and beige dais, seems a little too sophisticated to be the home of a purveyor of pots, pans, and toilet fittings, particularly a supposedly left-leaning one. Michael is the kind of man who abandons his children’s pet hamster in the street. He claims he thinks the pet will find a life of leisure eating from dumpster trucks, but one does not believe him.

On the opposing team, although allegiances shift as the night proceeds, are Ferdinand’s parents Annette (a not quite nasty enough Dinita Gohil) and Alan (Ariyon Bakare, slippery as a snake). She is in wealth management. He is an amoral lawyer whose insistent calls from a dodgy pharmaceutical client punctuate the action. “We are not taking the drug off the market just because people are bumping into the furniture”, he tells his colleague with lawyerly unscrupulousness. Of the four, Alan most unrepentantly believes in the god of carnage; he sees chaos as a necessary agent in capitalist destruction and reconstruction. “Are we ever interested in anyone other than ourselves?” he asks rhetorically. In his case, the answer is a defiant no.

The quartet’s conversational paradigm echoes chamber music (one might describe it as four irrational people conversing). One of the characters introduces a melody or motif of malicious spite, to which the three others respond with a cascade of similarly vitriolic comebacks. Annette’s tune is projectile vomiting the remains of an apple and pear clafoutis across Veronique’s prized coffee table art books. “Puking has certainly perked you up” responds Michael as he sponges puke off The People of The Tundra. “Cruelty and majesty,” says Veronica of the Francis Bacon volume she adores. “Chaos and violence” Annette corrects her.

La Barrie’s choice to return the action to Paris makes sense; the characters’ frequent use of “Madam” and “Sir”, and the slow shunt from formal honorifics to first names never felt culturally right for a London or New York setting. French existential nihilism works better in the 7th arrondissement.

Arnold places a semi-circular light bar at the stage rear. It slower lowers as events unfold. It is suitably emblematic of the sight of four carefully constructed personas being slowly crushed under the weight of their own rank hypocrisy.

There are plenty of second-half laughs in La Barrie’s production; the first half has the momentum of the almost imperceptibly revolving set. Visceral anger, which ought to be central to any production of this play, is here mainly just performative.

Runs until 30 September 2023

The Reviews Hub Score.

Chaos and carnage redux.

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