Carnage. It’s a hard-edged word, a brutal word. And, for all its urbane humour and highly polished middle class manners, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage is a hard-edged, brutal play – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf rolled into one.
Now it is to receive its Northern Ireland premiere at The MAC, courtesy of Prime Cut Productions, whose artistic director Emma Jordan describes it as 'the most difficult piece of work I have ever tackled'.
'It’s really tricky stuff, intellectually provocative but very funny. It falls between those two stools, but very, very knowingly. Some critics have said that, as a writer, Reza is too complicit in her own milieu, but I don’t agree. This play lampoons, reveals, exposes that cosy, middle class world in devastating fashion. She doesn’t let her characters away with a thing. It is polite for a short while, but that politeness and civility disintegrate quite quickly. It’s horribly difficult to crack.'
In time-honoured dramatic tradition, the basic premise is simple: two couples – Alain and Annette, Michel and Véronique – meet to discuss a quarrel between their two sons, which has resulted in one boy hitting the other with a stick and, in the process, removing two of his teeth. One pair are arty, left of centre liberal, the other a conservative power couple. Michel and Véronique are the hosts. In their elegant home, over tea and home-baked clafoutis, the four resolve to sort out the tiff in a rational, civilised fashion. But, little by little, fault lines start to appear, not only between the couples but within their respective marital relationships.
The choice of play marks a change of direction for Prime Cut, whose previous two outings have been with the large-scale, Bosnian co-produced The Conquest of Happiness
, performed in Derry, Belfast and the Balkan States, and then the uncompromising Chilean Trilogy
, for which The MAC’s spaces were completely and unrecognisably transformed. 'It’s been on my radar for a couple of years,' says Jordan. 'I talked to The MAC about doing it for the opening of the building, but we weren’t able to get the rights.
'We wanted to make a change from the intense, highly charged political work we have been involved in more recently. It’s all about confounding expectations of our work and not allowing ourselves to be pigeon-holed. We kept it on our agenda and were eventually successful in obtaining the rights – on so many levels, you have to be tenacious to work in this business.
'I think it will do well. It’s an extremely funny social satire, with an edge. It’s a good night out. We are using Christopher Hampton’s French/English translation, which was originally done for UK audiences. It was subsequently tweaked for the States. The cast and I tried out both but unanimously rejected the American version and opted for the first. Does that make us more knowingly European? Maybe.'
This complex, multilayered piece is all about perceptions, dealing with actions and reactions familiar to us all. On the surface, the four protagonists are well-rounded, right-thinking adults. But with startling speed the gloves come off and the masks of politeness begin to slip.
'Reza talks about what happens when the thin veneer of civility starts to crumble and our primal instincts start to show themselves,' explains Jordan. 'One of our most primitive human instincts emerges if your child is injured or hurt in any way. In that situation, you can make instant judgements, which often turn out to be wrong. This play is like a moving train,when you step onto it, it’s going at 100 miles an hour and it only gets faster and faster.'
That last statement is reinforced in the rehearsal room, where Dan Gordon, Ali White, Sean Sloan and Kathy Kiera Clarke are slugging it out as though their lives depend on it. By luck, they are rehearsing the scene everyone remembers, in which Clarke’s Annette vomits over Véronique’s precious coffee table books and priceless art catalogue. Taking exile in the bathroom, and with her husband clinically attached to his mobile phone elsewhere, she leaves White and Gordon to the revoltingly hilarious task of rescuing out the tainted goods with air freshener and a hair dryer.
There is a palpable sense of concentration as these four fine actors go about their work, focusing intently on the increasingly malicious, quick-fire verbal exchanges, with Gordon showing his sharp sense of comic timing and White fluttering around him ineffectually. Jordan contributes stabs of suggestions as to how they might sharpen the brilliant dialogue and crank up the venomous mounting tension. In dissecting her directorial approach, she is not slow to pinpoint the topicality of the political implications of the play, which she hopes will inform its ultimate delivery.
'We are negotiating a peace treaty here, trying to steer between two camps. Language is very important. For instance, was the boy ‘armed’ with a stick or ‘furnished’ with a stick? There is a distinct difference. All of us here know how important it is to use the right word when trying to reach a mutually satisfying outcome, or, at the very least, not to use the wrong word.'
And in the midst of those roller-coaster conversations, which become more and more out of control, is there a shared consideration of the Charlie Hebdo issue, the right to free expression and free speech?
'Funny you should ask, because we’ve been talking about that very thing this past day or so,' replies Jordan. 'The thing about freedom of speech is that one might hear things one doesn’t want to hear, and for the most part ‘truth’, whatever that means, can be uncomfortable and provocative but also has the potential to be cathartic and liberating.
'I think the play is very interesting in light of the current situation in France because it examines the self-serving nature of middle class parents who can't perceive their world as one that exists in a greater context, who can’t see the connection between a single act of violence in a playground and the wider world. It makes me think of Danton’s question, "Who shall be happy, if not everyone?" We ignore issues of class, racism, sectarianism and bigotry at our peril.'
God of Carnage runs at The MAC, Belfast from February 3 – 21.