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Naked raw nerves: The God of Carnage

8 May 2015

The God of Carnage

by Yasmina Reza

OHADS

Hampton Hill Playhouse Studio

Review by Mark Aspen

“Puking seems to have perked you up”. This memorable line from one of the characters in Yasmina Reza’s The God of Carnage can be seen as a metaphor for the cathartic effect of this, one of her best plays.  Certainly Reza’s pathological probing of the social interactions between families resonated with the audience at OHADS’ recent excellent production at the Hampton Hill Playhouse.

The play begins in civilised manner, over coffee and home-made clafoutis, as two middle-class couples meet for the first time at the home of Michael and Veronica. Then we find out the reason for their meeting.  There has been a playground fracas in which the son of the guests, Alan and Annette, had dislodged two front teeth of the son of their hosts.  Delicate negotiations begin and, at first, diplomatic minutiae are warily observed. However, tactful tiptoeing soon gives way to tension; diplomacy disintegrates, and true feelings surface.  Here is rich satirical soil and director Fiona Smith and her talented cast have cultivated it to bear much rich fruit.

We all know, but rarely admit, that for everyday life to function smoothly we must appear to balance our pretensions and prejudices against our foibles and frailties. Tilt this equilibrium slightly out of balance and social niceties are shown to be very fragile.   As a skilled dissector of social hypocrisy, Reza tilts the balance just enough to open the cracks. It is on this point that the OHADS company has built, by slightly caricaturing the characters whilst keeping them all too recognisable.  In the intimate space of the Coward studio at the Playhouse, Smith’s production kept the audience exquisitely balanced between laughter and discomfiture.

OHADS brought us even closer to home by adapting Reza’s Paris, via translator Christopher Hampton’s Highbury, to Hampton Hill itself; and even by borrowing the sofa from the gastropub next door. Costumes were also very accurate and made a statement right down to the coat-linings.

The cast formed a tight four-hander ensemble that was consistently strong. They were engaging and engaged: engaging in that they held the audience and carried it with them, engaged in that they were conscious of each other, used eye-contact well, and worked with spot-on timing, manipulating text and pauses to advantage.

The house in which the play is set is very much that of Veronica, and is ornamented with her statement-making collection of coffee-table art books.   She is a would-be do-gooder currently writing a book about Darfur.   Denise Rocard portrayed the arty-farty Veronica with an animated naturalness that allowed her character’s slightly batty new-ageism to show through.  It is Veronica who has initiated the meeting and has even set out a “heads of agreement” on the matter.  But she waivers between a principled stand and compromise when confronted by Alan, conceding that his son had come “furnished” with a stick, not “armed” with one.

Alan is the hard-bitten and cynical lawyer who clearly would like to be elsewhere, but he would see it as attending to more important things. Peter Hill played this role with great physicality, impressively juggling mobile phone and plate of crumbling clafoutis cake as he answers the many frantic calls from his client, a pharmaceutical manufacturer.   Hill depicted Alan’s acerbic confidence being steadily undermined both by the others in the room and by the increasing frenetic frustrations with his distant colleague and clients.  When his mobile is “accidentally” dropped into the water in a flower vase, he collapses into a weeping rocking heap as his life support machine is figuratively switched off.

Annette, Alan’s bejewelled designer-everything wife describes herself as into “wealth management”. She is … into managing Alan’s.  This role was played with beautiful incision by Helen Geldert in a precisely pitched interpretation.    When Annette’s worldly-wise shell is broken we see her vulnerability.   For her (and indeed for everybody) the tension is abruptly broken by her psychosomatic vomiting (yes, it is she who is perked up by puking).    A reviewer doesn’t often have the chance of commending an actor for vomiting, but Gelert’s was magnificent: so convincing that it has members of the audience retching (and complaining of the smell !): too much detail I know.

The only real casualty of Annette’s gastric voiding is Veronica’s priceless Kokoschka catalogue, but to the rescue comes Michael, the somewhat put-upon host. Stolid, salt of the earth, he tries to be the conciliator, but without success.  Consequently, he often finds himself on the defence, especially when the others turn on him, shattering his placatory image, as Veronica reveals that, in a moment of pique, he had released his daughter’s pet hamster onto the streets.   The poor creature will not survive the traffic of the High Street, they fret.  (As an aside, I was tempted to muse that, in the real world, the hapless hamster of Hampton Hill would soon fall to the predations of the local feral foxes, but again that is too much detail !).   As Michael, Harry Medawar gave a well-coloured depiction of the would-be genial host, trying his best.  Michael is a bit of an inverted snob and takes some pleasure in proclaiming his own boorishness.  It is Michael who takes off the figurative mask and literal jacket and tie, rolling up his sleeves to unleash the demon drink on the gathering.

Lubricated by Michael’s vintage single-cask rum, mayhem encroaches. The mutual dislike between the pair of couples now extends to between each spouse while every permutation of allies and foes fuels the fire.   Truth pokes through the pretence like shark fins through the sea surface.  Will that truth devour them?  No, clearly the mask of suburban values will go back on.  They can always blame the children, not noticing how childish they themselves have become.   After all, as one of them said, “Children consume and fracture our lives”.

OHADS production was laugh-out-loud funny, caustically incisive and soberingly reflective. Funny-bones were tickled but raw nerves touched.  We saw ourselves naked and laughed.

 

Mark Aspen

May 2015

 

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