Ferdinand Reille and Bruno Vallon are playmates. Ferdinand has just “disfigured his playmate” with a stick. To be precise, it resulted in “a swelling of the upper lip” and “the breaking of two incisors.” Having prepared a statement of events, Bruno’s parents, Veronique (Pamela Rabe) and Michel (Geoff Morrell), have invited Ferdinand’s parents, Alain (Hugo Weaving) and Annette (Natasha Herbert) to their Parisian home to discuss the incident, and the subsequent disciplinary actions. Long before the drinking of coffee is substituted for the drinking of rum, it is clear that what starts as a formal, perhaps overly polite, meeting between four middle-upper class, well educated adults, is not going to end well. The result is Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, a play that may well prove to be the most popular production of the MTC season.
This play was originally written in French but at the delicate hands of translator Christopher Hampton, screenwriter of the film Dangerous Liaisons and more recently Atonement, it has since been produced in English on Broadway and the West End. It has also been performed by a string of quality actors such as Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini and Ralph Fiennes and this year, with the play’s setting changed to Brooklyn, it won the Tony Award for Best Play. It is a work in which the plot is basic and the characters fairly one dimensional, and as a consequence it has provoked some discussion as to whether it merits the use of such fine actors. The truth is that Reza has created a play that tests the very best artists. The work places great importance on some of the most mundane objects and scenarios, and despite its lack of depth in discussion or themes, it therefore requires in its production and performance great attention to detail. The MTC production, directed by Peter Evans and starring Hugo Weaving, proves that such a treatment will make for not only a hilarious play but one which is without exaggeration, mesmerising for its audience.
The Melbourne production, although spoken in English, has thank goodness kept the setting of the play in Paris. With some wonderful performances and a seamless production it has done so with a minimal feeling of displacement or disjointedness. It is a choice that has given the work a sophistication that goes hand in hand with that of its characters. There is something rather special about keeping the origins of the original text in the play. For instance, there is a great debate over whether the Clafoutis, the dessert on offer, is a cake or a tart. It is a debate particular to France that would lack a certain something if it were changed to be a debate over apple pie.
The couples’ reason for this meeting is, like most of the scenarios in this play, only a slight exaggeration on the way things really are. This is a time when parents are increasingly protective of the physical and emotional wellbeing of their children. The emphasis on putting children in the best schools is greater than ever; children are rarely left alone for safety purposes, and extreme cases of schoolyard bulling are considered a crime. It is the audience’s acknowledgement of this, that they are watching themselves, which in part makes this work so amusing.
Reza often places her seemingly sophisticated and rational characters in a confined space, leaving them alone to let human nature take over. In God of Carnage the action is limited to the confines of the Vallon’s living room and although the characters are physically able to leave, as the play goes on, it seems they never will. Despite their daytime visit, the guests on their arrival are immaculate. Alain is dressed in a suit and Annette in silk and shiny shoes. She is in wealth management and he in law. Annette is a rather meek, nervous character who comes off second best to Alain’s work and the incessant ringing of his mobile phone. Alain was never a “stroller Dad” and is keen to get the meeting over and done with so he can attend to more important issues. In contrast, their hosts are more artistic and left wing. Veronique has a love of art and is writing a book on the Sudan region of Darfur, whilst husband Michel is a salesman of domestic hardware. With their agonising over choosing only the very best for their two children, they seem to be the picture perfect parents. That is of course until it’s revealed that Michel has left his daughter’s beloved hamster in a gutter to fend for itself because he has a fear of animals that walk around close to the ground.
Set and costume designer Dale Ferguson has created a most effective living space, minimalist in its lines but with colours and textures that reflect its artistic owners. The set itself is on an angle with just two floor to ceiling walls, one bright red and the other a giant whiteboard calendar with the ‘Reille meeting’ marked in red. The action is centred around a large square coffee table with two sofas on either side. Along with the bright orange carpet, the couples will traverse these when their composure turns to desperation. On the coffee table are a small collection of suitable ‘coffee table’ books – in particular Veronique’s prized out of print Oskar Kokoschka catalogue (which she goes to great lengths to save with a hairdryer and a spraying of cologne when it threatens to be ruined in the most revolting of ways) and a large glass float bowl bathing very expensive tulips. It is a picture of perfection that throughout the course of the play will, like the characters, be turned into utter chaos.
Weaving is without a doubt the star in this show. In Alain he is given the naughtier of the characters but he also brings to the role subtle facial expressions and mannerisms that convey just as much, if not more, than the dialogue he is given. It is not only his character which overshadows that of his wife but unfortunately also that of Herbert’s performance of her. Rabe and Morrell, whilst not quite in the same calibre as Weaving, do a mighty fine job of bringing their characters to life. Rabe and Weaving’s delivery of dialogue is more measured and rounded than that of the other two performers and this compliments the European flavour of the play rather better than the more obviously Australian accents of Morrell and Herbert.
For a play where nothing much happens this work avoids predictability far better and for far longer than one would expect. The characters, in their vying for acceptance and challenging of one another creates many shifts in alliances. The play also has many well-timed changes in pace and focus and even in the moments where there is apparently little action, the attention to detail is so great that these moments become just as enthralling. There comes a point, late in the play, when the action can only go down one path and it is only then that it goes for just a little too long.
The brilliance of God of Carnage lies in its observation of everyday life, and the quality of one performance in particular that may remain unparalleled for quite some time. Above all, it reminds us that a visit to the theatre can be a truly joyous experience.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
Directed by Peter Evans
Venue: the Arts Centre, Playhouse
Dates: 29 August – 3 October, 2009
Opening night: Thursday 3 September at 8:00pm
Tickets: From $58.20 (Under 30s – $30)
Bookings: MTC Theatre Box Office 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au | Ticketmaster 1300 723 038