French playwright and novelist, Yazmina Reza, shook up the entire theatre industry with her vibrant 1994 hit play, Art, in which three friends are torn apart by a modern, exorbitantly-priced canvas of questionable artistic merit. And God of Carnage, first premièring in 2006, is no less observant in its wry assessment of human social behaviour. Bad behaviour.
This four-part piece looks at two different families with apparently opposite parenting styles, yet who are ultimately more similar than they first realise. Like animals, both revert to protecting their young no matter how culpable they are, while the men agree that boys will be boys and consider the women misguided in believing that talking or trying to be diplomatic will achieve anything.
Elizabeth McGovern (of Downton Abbey fame) is utterly hilarious as the dual-natured Veronica in this Theatre Royal Bath production directed by Lindsay Posner; an uptight mother whose son has just had two teeth knocked out by another school boy, Freddie. In a move to see how Freddie’s parents are handling the situation and instilling a sense of conscience into their boy, she and her reluctant husband Michael (Nigel Lindsay) do the ‘grown-up thing’ and invite them over to discuss how they can all move forward, although she seems less than hospitable on forgetting to offer the couple a refreshment or a slice of her precious clafoutis (a reminder that this play is translated from French).
Peter Mckintosh’s sleek set design encompasses Veronica’s neatness and desire for control, with an extensive array of coffee-table books, also positioned to the edge of the stage, highlighting her interest in Africa, and menacing-looking crossed African spears suspended above the stage telling us to prepare for anything but a mature exchange. Assured direction by Posner ramps up the tension and humour in this colourful staging of Reza’s comedy of manners and, sure enough, the parents, fuelled by copious quantities of rum, behave far less responsibly than their children (whom we never see). Cue temper tantrums, drunkenness, swearing and projectile vomit which has the audience positively screaming with laughter – and swerving if you happen to be in the stalls. Seated next to the charming Hugh Bonneville (presumably there to support his on-screen wife) I’m embarrassed to admit that I squeezed his arm in my response to the scene.
Veronica quickly dismisses the suited wealth manager Annette (Amanda Abbington) as a phoney the moment she turns her back, while Michael clearly feels defensive of his humble profession as a lavatory and saucepan salesman by the side of Freddie’s dapper father Alan, a hot-shot lawyer whom Ralf Little portrays with gusto, not least when Annette plunges his mobile into a vase of tulips. The subtle choreography and positioning of each member of the cast reflects the changing dynamic and their attitudes towards one another; at one moment the men ganging up on the women, the next vice versa, while both couples reveal a less than harmonious partnership that leads us to question the impact this has had on their children.
An arrogant workaholic who proceeds to interrupt the conversation ad infinitum by taking urgent business calls (a role Ralph Fiennes played to great acclaim in the 2008 London production) gold-watch wearing Alan is far more interested in extricating his client, a pharmaceutical company accused of knowingly punting a faulty product laced with extreme side-effects, than he is in discussing disciplining his son for hitting another boy. The drug company sub-plot becomes extremely awkward and amusing when Michael discovers that his own aged mother has just been prescribed the very same medicine for her blood pressure, requesting that Alan talk to her on the phone and try to dissuade her from taking it.
Performed without an interval, the intensity created by Posner and this fine cast is all-absorbing, doing full justice to Reza’s brutally frank portraits, all too familiar to many of us. Whilst she has often been said to create unlikeable characters, each player in this production (particularly McGovern) cleverly draws on a likeable side of their character, allowing the audience to better relate to the highly fraught adult playground before them. For those who have witnessed this kind of petty parenting politics at one time or another in real life (let alone participated in it) it may just have you waiting for the ‘school’s out’ bell.
God of Carnage at Theatre Royal Bath, Saw Close, Bath BA1 1ET until 15 September 2018. Running time 80 minutes with no interval. Production images by Nobby Clark. For more information and tickets please visit the website.