Review by Isabel Zakharova
What if - for just a short while - we allowed ourselves to say exactly what was on our minds, social decorum, manners and political correctness be damned? Would the people around us be able to tolerate this sudden onslaught of brutal honesty? Would we? Would our relationships be profoundly damaged? These are questions explored in Darlo Drama’s latest production, God of Carnage, written by Yasmina Reza. But we don’t start here; rather, the play begins at the other end of the spectrum: utmost politeness.
God of Carnage takes place in a London apartment - home to married couple Emily and Michael Novak. Visiting them is another married couple - Annette and Alan Raleigh. The reason for the visit? During an earlier playground incident, the Raleighs’ eleven year-old son struck the Novaks’ son with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. Now, the couples have convened to figure out a solution for how to move forward. It’s an awkward situation, made all the more so by the characters’ efforts to keep the atmosphere light, making half-hearted attempts at small talk and offering meaningless compliments. But as the day wears on and the alcohol flows, agonising politeness slowly morphs into passive aggression, before transforming into a full-blown confrontation. As all the characters shed their pretences; tensions, political disputes and deep-rooted issues in each couple’s respective marriages all come to the surface, leaving us struggling to remember why they had all gathered in the first place.
Reza’s play is simultaneously hilarious and shocking. With its constant shifts between different emotional extremes, as well as its single-location setting, it certainly presents a huge challenge for any actor. But the cast takes on this challenge seemingly effortlessly, delivering beautifully nuanced performances complete with sharp moments of physical theatre. While Alan and Annette - beautifully portrayed by William Baltyn and Mel Jensen - appear to love each other, there are hints of cruelty in Alan’s nature, and a sense of exasperation in the marriage on Annette’s side. Emily Shaddick shines in her role of holier-than-thou Veronika Novak, who seems to be the only person who genuinely cares about resolving the playground incident. Nick Roberts brings his comedic strengths to his role of Michael, a character who constantly teeters between outbursts of humour in an attempt to diffuse the situation, and chaotic tirades hinting at a deep suffering. Together, the four performers form a terrific cast who are a delight to watch on stage.
Director Romney Hamilton (Sunrise; Websters Bitch) must be commended for her incredible attention to detail. At one point, Alan and Michael stand up to confront one another. And while no punches are thrown, and neither character raises their voice, the argument carries more tension and pent-up aggression than any physical fight I’ve witnessed. Earlier in the play, when the Raleighs and Novaks are still wearing their metaphorical masks, we’re given glimpses into the characters’ true feelings through subtle expressions - an overly sweet smile, a fake cough, a scowl when their opponent’s back is turned. The strength of these exchanges is truly a testament to Hamilton’s precise directing style, as well as the actors’ refined performances.
Audiences seeking a play with easy answers or a satisfying finish should be warned - God of Carnage offers neither. Indeed, after the play’s abrupt ending, I found myself pondering the age-old question: what exactly was the writer trying to say? But perhaps God of Carnage shouldn’t be viewed that way - it’s simply an exploration of the human condition when people are pushed to their extremes. Either way, it’s a truly entertaining piece of theatre.
God of Carnage plays at Darlo Drama until Sunday 27 November.
Image Credit: Romney Hamilton