“A living room. No realism. Nothing superfluous.”
From this first line of stage directions onwards, Yasmina Reza’s internationally-acclaimed God of Carnage seems a perfect fit for student productions: the minimalist set, combined with the focus on the intensity of the acting and dialogue, complements student theatre’s size and ambience in general. Under the claustrophobic, sloped roof of the 50-seater BT Studio, however, it was especially powerful -it’s impossible to hide away from the tragic and bleakly humorous verbal, mental and physical breakdowns happening in front of you, though the captivating performances of the cast meant that nobody in the audience could take their eyes off it regardless.
The premise of the play is straightforward – two married couples are meeting for the first time to discuss an event that occurred between their sons. Alain and Annette, the parents of Ferdinand, are visiting Véronique and Michel, the parents of Bruno, who was hit in the face by Ferdinand with a stick and as a result lost two teeth. What begins as an attempt by the parents to deal with the matter in as civil and formal a way as possible (Véronique begins the play by reading out a statement on the event) descends into utter carnage: an inability to agree on the correct language to explain the matter, and both couple’s failure to support their respective partners, sees the formality of the situation disappear, and what follows is a cacophony of insults, bigoted philosophies and physical violence as the parents infantilize on stage. Reza’s play looks at the social and political adult masks that the middle-class wear, and what can happen if they’re given the chance to take them off.
A play that needs excellent pacing and a balance of tragedy and humour to work, God of Carnage is a work that is easy to perform but difficult to perfect. The team behind this student production did an admirable job creating what Yasmina Reza has referred to as the “theatre of nerves”, and this started with the excellent use of what was a small set. In terms of stage directions or descriptions, productions of Reza’s plays have little to go on when creating sets and costumes, making the use of space and colour here all the more impressive. The initial placement of Véronique and Michel in front of the exit furthered the sense of enclosure in the beginning encounters, and the use of one sofa and two separate chairs during the play was used cleverly and not farcically. Véronique and Michel’s white table and clear objects gave off a pleasant, formal appearance contrasting with the predominantly black and red clothes of all four characters. Of particular note were the all-black clothes of Alain and Véronique, which symbolized their strange and compelling anti-relationship during the performance. These subtle choices added to but did not overpower the tension that was being broiled on stage.
Alex Matraxia’s direction helped the performers to show off their constant switches of allegiances between each other and their communicative degradation (or perhaps elevation) to raw impulse. Many different vertical levels were found on the small set – standing, sitting either alone on a chair or together on a sofa, or sitting on the floor – which conveyed both the relationships between characters and their individual feelings. Other small actions not mentioned in the original Christopher Hampton translation of the Reza script, like Annette taking off her shoes, were also neat, understated touches supporting the cast in their performance. Speaking of the cast, the qualities of each of their performances seemed to be wholly linked to the character they were playing. Though Hampton once said in relation to Reza that “her plays bend themselves to the actors”, it was of no surprise to see Joana Isabella as the impulsive and short-tempered Véronique being the most dominant presence on the stage, and Katie Cook as Annette perhaps being the most impressive for the quite stark changes in tone that her role required. Alec McQuarrie, in probably the most difficult role for a student in this play (Michel was first played by James Gandolfini when the play hit Broadway), captured the subdued, politically-incorrect husband very well (his line “We tried to be nice…my wife passed me off as a lefty” received the biggest laugh of the night), and Lee Simmonds’ Alain, with the haughtiness and presence of a diva that I could never have even imagined, provided the antagonistic and comical spark to set the play in motion. The chemistry between the cast was strong, and the contrast between the tense relationships within the marriages and the shifting relationships across them was very apparent.
On a final note, two script changes from the Hampton translation were particularly noticeable. The change of one homophobic slur to another, more offensive homophobic slur gave a stronger political edge, highlighting the outdated political opinions that were also hiding under the surface at the beginning of the play. The very ending of the play was also changed, which, without giving too much away, saw the last few lines that resolve the play omitted, instead leaving an awkward, darkly funny silence. This, however, might not have been the perfect time for what struck much of the audience as a fairly cheap laugh. Though the balance of tragedy and humour was not struck entirely, God of Carnage is a mightily impressive student play, full of subtlety and pacing that is rarely seen with young directors and performers. For an evening of tension, dark tragicomedy, and a strange kind of primitive catharsis, the BT Studio is the place to be this week.