NOT since Equus, Peter Shaffer’s 1970s era-defining play about obsession, have theatre-goers flocked to Broadway in such eager numbers. In Berlin, Paris and London, audiences responded in the same way.
Everywhere it goes, God of Carnage, by French writer Yasmina Reza, is packing them in and it is likely to do the same in Australia when it opens in four cities this year.
God of Carnage is a simple scenario about two couples in a room who start out discussing, with goodwill and civility, an instance of violence between their two young sons, then gradually turn into monsters of self-obsessive unreasonableness. It is on target to surpass even Reza’s ’90s mega-success Art, a play about three men whose friendship is tested by an argument about the value of an all-white canvas, which the playwright claims is the most widely and regularly performed contemporary play in the world.
"I can’t remember us cracking three different productions of a new play in one year for a long time," Sydney Theatre Company’s general manager Rob Brookman says. "For the mainstage companies it’s a logical choice: a beautifully written piece by a well-respected writer and opportunities for four actors to strut their stuff with a smart, audience-friendly play.
"Finding terrific comedy is very hard and God of Carnage fulfils that."
God of Carnage has just opened in Brisbane in a co-production by Black Swan State Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre Company that will move to Perth in mid-June. The Melbourne Theatre Company season, which includes Pamela Rabe and Hugo Weaving in the cast of four, opens in August; STC’s production opens in October and will star Jeremy Sims.
Such a play — a four-hander in one act that requires the bare minimum of a set — is manna from heaven for theatre companies, a reliable crowd-pleaser with the zing of controversy to up its must-see value. While writing such a play may look easy, Brookman says, playwrights of the calibre of Reza do not come along very often.
Reza, just turned 50, by all accounts a chic little person with an eye for a well-cut frock, says the actor in her is "the female part: an idiot, archaic, a slave of instinct who can’t exercise her intelligence". In contrast to that side of herself, she says, "I write like a man."
Art placed three men centre stage in roles so coveted that in London the cast changed regularly every two or three months for six years until just about every well-known actor had starred in it.
Reza’s other work tends to balance the male and female parts evenly: Life x 3, which Michael Gow — the first of the Australian directors to tackle the viciously hilarious script of God of Carnage — says is a "very weak" play, has the same two-couple scenario, and a failed dinner-party meeting that gradually disintegrates into truth-revealing slanging matches. The Unexpected Man, a two-hander, is about a man and woman on a train imagining conversations they might have before they have them.
Gow is expecting God of Carnage to divide audiences along sex lines: women, he says, will find the male characters repulsive but men will be more tolerant. Women will understand why each female character refuses to judge her son’s behaviour but men will find that reaction idiotic. Towards the end of the wild hour the audience spends in the company of Annette and Alain, Michel and Veronique, when the veneer of civility has been shredded by their acid tongues, Alain claims men don’t like women who are "committed, problem-solving custodians of the world". "What we like about women," says obnoxious, mobile-phone obsessed Alain, whose wife responds to the tension in the room by vomiting violently over a much-prized art catalogue, "is sensuality, wildness, hormones."
"It’s the conversations in the car on the way home that will be most interesting," Gow says. "A play like this has no real developing story, it’s all about performance, and so the fun for the actors is in doing these hairpin turns and pulling rabbits out of hats, so that even the characters are constantly looking at each other and saying, ‘Where did that come from?’
"In Australia, we’re used to a more naturalistic style where a character must change over the course of the play, but the action of this play simply reduces them all to a level where the curtain falls and you’re left thinking, ‘What happens now?’ What will the characters do next? It’s not an issues-based play and that’s the breath of fresh air for people in the theatre."
Reza writes provocatively about the people who come to see her plays, the urban, middle-aged, middle class interested in culture and in the psychology of self and society. Even if we do not recognise portraits of ourselves in these unpleasant, shallow, selfish, ill-mannered souls, we understand the situation in which they find themselves. The play draws us in, like the audience on a reality television show, to judge, condemn or condone.
It’s a play, that "has its cake and eats it too", Gow says, the characters voicing opinions that are rarely heard in polite company, and the audience feeling comfortable laughing along. When the joke becomes crude, such as when Michel, emboldened by rum, accuses his wife, Veronique, who is writing a book on Darfur, of being infatuated by a "bunch of Sudanese coons", laughing becomes more problematic. Reza says her audiences ought not be having an altogether good time.
While Reza is a playwright who clearly suits those audiences who want a night at the theatre to be entertaining and not too taxing, that does not mean she is happy about it. More than a decade ago she uttered the quotable words that have stuck to her, more so because she also has stated how little she respects journalistic attempts to profile her. "My plays have always been described as comedy, but I think they’re tragedy," she said. "They are funny tragedy, but they are tragedy. Maybe it’s a new genre."
The hubris of such a statement did not escape her critics, particularly in France where she has offended establishment sensibilities with a genre-defying book about Nicolas Sarkozy. Written in the form of a campaign trail diary from the year leading into the 2007 French presidential election, Dawn, Evening or Night revealed as much, some critics claimed, about Reza as about her subject, evidence of a scandalous lack of humility in the woman.
Reza told Le Monde newspaper, one of the few for which she writes and to which she gives interviews, Sarkozy was "only a model for the portrait painter that I was, a character like those who haunt my books". "My quest was infinitely personal," she said. "Nothing anecdotal but always the obsessive question about destiny and time’s flight: How should we fill our days? How should we live in time? How must we live?"
Reza’s books, unlike the plays, are heavy not only with such ontological questioning but also with Reza’s self-examination. Hammerklavier (1997) and Nulle part (2005) are autobiographical ruminations of the "How must we live?" variety, while Desolation (1999), Adam Haberberg (2003) and On Arthur Schopenhauer’s Sled (2005) display what Judith Thurman, writing in The New Yorker last month, describes as the "deep end" of the writer’s talent, her "reservoir of buoyant anguish and pessimism".
Desolation was written in the wake of Art’s success, part of what Reza calls her determination to repossess herself. When she did begin writing plays again, neither Lifex3 (2000) nor A Spanish Play (2004) had that same zeitgeist timeliness as Art.
Then God of Carnage came along, zeroing in on how, in the 21st century, there is so much chatter and so little communication.
Art was Reza’s fourth play. Her first, Conversations after a Burial, was produced in France in 1987, winning the playwright, at 26, her first award. Winter Crossing followed two years later, then The Unexpected Man, which has been staged several times in Australia. But it was 1995’s Art, about how an all-white artwork triggers a domino cascade of aesthetic, then ideological, then personal arguments between three friends, that gave Reza the international audience for which she was searching. When it opened in London in 1996, with Christopher Hampton’s translation so accomplished it removed all hint of Gallic parochialism, Art carried off the coveted triple: good reviews, box office success and the top theatre awards.
Agnes Poirier, writing in London’s Independent last year before the opening of God of Carnage, remembered Reza’s excited reaction to that 1996 success as being "fresh and childlike". A decade on, Poirier suggests, the child has gone, replaced by a shrewd, proud woman who despises not only her critics but also the happily chortling audiences who have made her plays so successful. If Reza craves the "recognition of her peers," Poirier says, she "hides it well under a seemingly impenetrable Parisienne confidence".
Thurman, who was able to spend time with Reza at her Left Bank apartment to write her long profile, published just as God of Carnage was opening on Broadway, came to the conclusion that "few creative artists have the gall of Yasmina Reza, but few have her powers of invention". To a select few interviewers, Reza is frank about her distaste for the trappings of celebrity. "I have never wanted to join a coterie," she told Thurman. "But my reserve and my ferocity are mistaken for arrogance by journalists, so I give them the strict minimum. If they sense that I don’t care about their opinions, they’re right."
If this suggests a reclusive writer whose identity is veiled behind the noisy rabble that is the collective identity of her play’s characters, that is not the full picture. Reza’s move from acting to writing sounds like the one-way trajectory of many playwrights who realise, early on, that they are better suited to a behind-the-scenes role but, in fact, occasionally she has continued to take acting roles. She also has written screenplays for films directed by Didier Martiny, the man with whom she lived for several decades and with whom she had two children, a daughter, now 20, and a son, 16.
As well as the semi-autobiographical books, Hammerklavier and Nulle part, she also has mined her own life for A Spanish Play, first produced in France in 2004. It, too, has been translated into English but has not been popular with theatre companies. Thurman suggests it is "more self-consciously literary" than most of Reza’s playwriting. A section from that play has been reworked into a screenplay for the film Reza is directing and that, she says, focuses on the "failed dreams and solitude" of women. She has suggested that she based the mother in the film’s story on her own mother, Nora, who was a violinist until she married and had children, at which point she completely and irrevocably stopped playing.
The snatches of family history Reza has disseminated — about her father, an Iranian Jew whose family migrated to France in the ’20s, and her mother, a Hungarian Jew who came to France in 1950 — are scant not because Reza is hiding the information but because, she says, the family did not talk about it.
She grew up in Saint-Cloud, on the edge of Paris, and went on to study sociology and theatre at university, "just passing time", as she puts it, although the campus where Reza passed this time was Paris X Nanterre, the radical centre of so much new-wave cultural and political thinking in the wake of the May 1968 protests.
Failing to make the grade at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Art (a rejection, she told Thurman, that left her with "an enduring sense of injustice"), she enrolled at the Lecoq theatre school, where she took some of the same classes as Geoffrey Rush. Rush and his wife, Jane Menelaus, played one of the husband-and-wife pairs in MTC’s 2002 production of Life x 3. Unlike Gow’s dismissive opinion of the play, Rush thinks it’s "quite brilliant", with the "feel of a boulevard comedy that gets as dark and meaty as Strindberg".
The term boulevard comedy is the sticking point for many discussions about the worth of Reza’s plays. No one denies their entertainment value but do they play too readily to the thigh-slapping, belly-laugh response and not enough to the wry shudder that signals the Strindberg meatiness that Rush found in Life x 3?
Gow says God of Carnage does have boulevard moments but that audiences will come away feeling just a little threatened by what they’ve witnessed. "This is not as superficial as Art, which was really a play championing the middlebrow where the men were charming in a pathetic way," Gow says. "No one is charming in this play. The more we worked on it, the more we discovered it was like The Bacchae: if you repress something or ignore it, it will come back and get you."
As well as being incisive about how, in relationships, each partner may be forced to repress a part of their personality, Gow says God of Carnage brilliantly exposes one of the myths of contemporary culture, that human beings can negotiate their way, politely and reasonably, out of potential and real conflict. "Its coolness is its virtue," Gow says. "When the explosions happen they are fascinating and it doesn’t feel strained. Reza knows exactly where to sit the characters and how they speak. We have to let go of judging them completely, let go and play the character without indicating that we think they’re up themselves or idiots or to be condemned or applauded. It’s the thorniness of actually being truthful."
Reza directed Isabel Huppert in God of Carnage when it opened in Paris and the English-language productions that have followed have proved to be vehicles for virtuoso performances by big-name actors. Ralph Fiennes starred in London and James Gandolfini is in the New York production.
Peter Evans, who signed Weaving for the MTC production, said he knew these were roles actors would "eat up" as soon as he read the script. "It’s funnier on stage than on the page," Evans says. "While it’s a comedy of manners, it’s all about subtle negotiations and small shifts of power, so just when the audience becomes tuned to watching every small gesture, it goes bananas. Those who have criticised it have said it’s not deep enough, but that doesn’t matter. It’s clever, and sharp and bold, and it’s the kind of role that is bread and butter for an actor."
Reza may well be bread and butter for actors, honey for audiences and cream for theatre companies, but the playwright still appears to taste bitterness alongside the sweetness of success. In Le Monde recently, she wrote an appreciation of Milan Kundera who, she said, was criticised for hiding himself within his writing. "We find it hard to forgive a man for being great and illustrious, and even more so if he combines that with keeping silent. In our noisy empire, silence is an offence."
Like Kundera, Reza suggests, she wants her work to stand as her testament, but she knows such a desire will open her to further criticism.
"Whoever does not agree to open themselves up to public scrutiny, to some form of public contribution outside the work itself, that person annoys us, and becomes the target of choice."