Melissa Blease reviews God of Carnage, starring Elizabeth McGovern, Amanda Abbington, Ralf Little and Nigel Lindsay, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 15 September
“I’m glad our son kicked the shit out of your son and I wipe my ass with your human rights!” Blimey! That doesn’t sound like a quote from the last PTA meeting you attended, does it? But if many ostensibly ‘polite’ middle-class parents were totally honest with each other, that’s exactly the kind of thing many of them would be aching to say – and middle-class parenting, honesty and desperation are all boldly put in the spotlight in Yasmina Reza’s 2006 play God of Carnage.
Originally written in French, God of Carnage was translated by Christopher Hampton – and, like Reza’s enduringly popular 1994 play Art it’s definitely lost nothing in the translation, nor has time wearied it. From the get-go, you just know that we’re on deliciously uncomfortable, titillatingly awkward territory – delicious and titillating because we’re voyeurs, uncomfortable and awkward because the situation the four characters find themselves in can’t possibly be an easy one to navigate.
When Annette and Alan’s 11-year-old son Freddie knocks two of Veronica and Michael’s son Henry’s teeth out in a playground fight, the two couples meet to discuss what happened, and what should happen next. We don’t get to meet either of the children, but we don’t need to; the most vicious exchanges, as it turns out, are to be between the adults.
The whole tense, bitter drama is played out in the living room of Veronica and Michael’s pristine, soulless apartment, lit by a huge metal light fixture created by a tangle of sinister-looking spears and armoury – a clever set design by Peter McKintosh that visually summarises the personalities, situation and likely denouement of the whole uneasy, overwrought social accident waiting to happen.
Elizabeth McGovern as uptight, sanctimonious Veronica is passive-aggression personified: a needy control freak at the top of her needy control freak game. It’s never quite made clear how or why she ever met, let alone married, the resolutely, wilfully uncouth Michael (Nigel Lindsay) but who cares? Lindsay brings dry wit to the role of the unlikely husband, creating the perfect foil for his petty, petulant wife to rail against. Ralf Little is blithely oleaginous as slick, obnoxious lawyer Alan, disinterested in the whole affair and permanently attached to his mobile phone. But it’s Amanda Abbington who steals the show as Annette: permanently on the brink of a panic attack (if not a full-on nervous breakdown), emotionally abandoned by her husband, metaphorically (and at one fabulously vile moment, literally) sick of her role as wife and mother. If Annette is who Beverly Moss would have been had Mike Leigh rewritten Abigail’s Party for a 1990s audience, Abbington is the Alison Steadman for the zeroes: a super-cool, super-dynamic, super-compelling actor at the top of her game.
If you’re looking for a modern-day Ayckbourn farce or a sitcom-style giggle-fest, God of Carnage isn’t it. If, however, you’re in the mood for an incisively intelligent tragi-comedy that savages the artifice of respectable social conventions as effectively as vomit stains the glossy pages of an expensive art catalogue, this drama is divine.