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Reviewed by:
  • The God of Carnage
  • Amanda Beth Holden
The God of Carnage. By Yasmina Reza. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Gielgud Theatre, London. 13 June 2008.

Yasmina Reza’s plays consistently have ninety-minute run-times, small casts, and abstract settings, but her most significant trademark is what I term the “breach”: a moment of rupture, in which time or space shifts to reveal an unstable foundation. In Life X 3, the same evening begins again, for the second, and then third time. “Art” violates the fourth wall with soliloquies, but restores it when characters share a scene. Conversations After a Burial’s out-of-body scene is a surprising end to a play that has hitherto obeyed the unity of place. The God of Carnage signals Reza’s boldest breach yet by destabilizing her building blocks; in this production, scenic and sound design, gestures, noises, even silences all “voice” the playwright’s theme of the failure of language.

The God of Carnage features two couples discussing a playground brawl between their sons. In the West End production, lawyer Alain Reille (Ralph Fiennes) and his poised wife Annette (Tamsin Greig) visited Véronique Vallon (Janet McTeer), a peace-loving Darfur advocate, and her cheerful husband Michel (Ken Stott). This polite attempt to compose a report of the playground scuffle became a savage blame-game— masks fell, characters exploded, and beneath the desire for peace surged the primal motto: every man, woman, and child for themselves. Although the characters began with the civilized task of drafting a statement of the playground incident, hoping to stabilize the event through language, they found it impossible to agree on a simple word. Was the Reille boy armed with a stick, or was he furnished with it? From here, language slipped from the characters’ hands and repeatedly failed to contain any decipherable meaning.

The production’s scenic and sound design contributed to the failure of language from the start. A pre-show white drop featured a child’s red-ink drawing of a boy and his parents. The seasoned Reza fan could see this as childish vandalism on the controversial canvas from “Art,” but this drawing highlighted the disconnect between the primitive family portrait and the live actors who would emerge onstage moments later. Just as the child’s messy drawing depicted actual people inaccurately, so too, the words in The God of Carnage disappointed the characters who employed them. Gary Yershon’s music furthered this notion of failed language, when thumping jungle sounds filled the dark theatre, thrusting the audience into a savage environment. When the lights came up, however, the characters onstage spoke politely; their language failed to cooperate with Yershon’s pounding jungle music. Mark [End Page 126] Thompson’s set design diverged equally from the language: his towering blood-red walls, matching red floor, and tables of natural, unfinished wood prepared the audience for a rough world, but the civil opening words of the play contradicted the more savage visual (and aural) clues.

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Janet McTeer (Veronique), Ken Stott (Michel), Ralph Fiennes (Alain), and Tamsin Greig (Annette) in The God of Carnage. Photo: Alastair Muir.

Director Matthew Warchus emphasized language’s unreliability with gestures that competed with words. After Véronique emasculated Michel by telling their guests of his motherly instincts, he stiffened, and his face fell from a cheerful grin to a blank stare. As his wife and the guests carried on their conversation, Michel seemed betrayed, but couldn’t speak. The other characters continued talking and Michel stared fiercely at Véronique, eyes bulging, hands flailing. He tried to tell her something, but his language failed; he communicated through glares and hand gestures that battled with the language of the scene. Alain’s gestures likewise competed with the dialogue. He quickly jerked his head to his wife in the midst of a conversation, signaling that they must leave. As language continued its decline, the characters found alternative means of communication. In a rare moment of marital solidarity, Michel and Véronique used their time alone to mock their guests’ nickname, Woof Woof. Their inside joke turned into a barking game, as they growled...


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pp. 126-128
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