God of Carnage

Prime Cut Productions' adaptation of the Yasmina Reza play is a breath of fresh air at The MAC in Belfast

Boy 1 is 11, and has a little ‘gang’ of special chums he won’t allow Boy 2 to hang out with. Boy 2 gets irritated, and hits Boy 1 with a stick. Two teeth are knocked out, and Boy 1’s parents are furious. They tell Boy 2’s parents about the incident, and ask what they are going to do about it.

If you’re a parent of young children, or simply remember the knockabout shenanigans of your own childhood, this may be an all-too-familiar scenario. It is also the starting-point for Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, currently running at The MAC in Belfast.

The play has an interesting history. Written in French, it was first performed in German, in 2007, then in a highly successful English translation, which led to a movie adaptation (Carnage) directed by Roman Polanski.

Some seriously impressive actors have appeared in its various incarnations – Isabelle Huppert, Ralph Fiennes, Jodie Foster, James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, to name but a few – and the inaugural London production won an Olivier for Best New Play of 2008. So the piece has pedigree.

Its arrival in Belfast comes courtesy of a new production by the Prime Cut Productions, and although the Parisian references in the text remain intact, Northern Irish accents are papered over them – it's more BT9 than Boulevard Saint-Germain, and with varyingly successful efforts at French street names and terminology.

Generically God of Carnage has much in common with the venerable tradition of French farce. There is the same basic premise of big consequences following from small beginnings, of events controlling people, not vica versa, and of individuals ultimately undone by what lies within them, and traits of character they may be only dimly aware of.

The difference is that farce usually ends happily: God of Carnage doesn’t. The meeting between the two sets of parents to discuss their offspring’s altercation unravels disastrously in a gathering storm of accusation and bitter counter-accusation, leaving all four characters psychologically shredded at the conclusion.

Is this funny? How much of it is funny? These are difficult questions for the director, and Emma Jordan’s answers are ‘yes’ and ‘nearly all of it’. So the characters’ verbally abusive exchanges with one another are properly relished, as is the visual comedy in throwing objects, throwing up, and throwing all decorum to the wind when home truths about the two marriages uncomfortably surface.

Cumulatively it can all seem a little one-paced and two-dimensional, however, with few of the awkward silences the dialogue implies are necessary, if the excruciating social awkwardnesses of the rival parents’ situations are to be fully negotiated, the process by which their habitual identities gradually crumble fully appreciated.

Phone calls are dashed through, with little sense that there is a human being at the other end of the line talking, and when meltdown eventually happens, it happens with a vengeance – the final section of the play degenerates into a bit of a shouting match, the scream of rage and frustration continuing long after it has served its dramatic purpose.

By the end of proceedings, you feel a little battered by the relentlessness of it all, and not as challenged or unsettled as you might be. There is more darkness and subtle shading available in Reza’s writing, and we need to feel it.

That said, there is much fine ensemble acting from the team of Kathy Kiera Clarke, Dan Gordon, Sean Sloan and Ali White, and Ciaran Bagnall’s set – a dome-like structure defined by wooden, whalebone curvatures – effectively suggests both a refined domesticity and the interior of something confining, a prison.

God of Carnage is clearly an important play, and does much to anatomise the desperate levels of self-concealment and subterfuge needed to survive in the minutely scrutinised environment of a plugged-in 21st century. And though it ultimately doesn’t add a great deal to the withering analysis a play like Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party offered four decades ago (where I hoped it might do), Prime Cut are to be applauded for looking outwards to the European theatrical mainstream for inspiration. 

There are enough plays about ‘local issues’ being staged already in Northern Ireland; it’s a breath of fresh air to be offered something thought-provokingly different.

God of Carnage runs in The MAC, Belfast until February 21.