God of Carnage: the stylish destruction of the middle class

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

Photo: Barbara Gray

Yasmina Reza, whose works have been translated and performed all over the world, is one of the most prolific playwrights in present-day France. And yet, her plays are easily accessible to any audience because they deal with people we recognize.  Essentially about middle class individuals who lead boring everyday lives, her plays unmask the rituals of a class-conscious society with a stylish ferocity that is “terribly” entertaining.

This Third Wall Theatre production  represents a new beginning for the Company after a year of absence from the Ottawa scene and this witty and intelligent play, even though it might pose some problems for a Canadian audience, is a good choice for their new season.

Director Ross Manson’s reading of Reza`s nasty little social satire respects all Hampton’s French references  translated from the original Parisian setting, quite unlike the American adaptations that set the play in New York. These changes might have made the production  more palpable for an American audience but I’m sure such changes would remove the satirical essence of this nasty play. 

Manson’s meticulous and essentially comic staging guides the actors around Brian Smith’s sleekly modern set, the perfect expensive bourgeois apartment of Michel (John Koensgen) and Véronique (Mary Ellis) Vallon, in one of the beaux quartiers of Paris.  The Vallons  have invited Alain (Todd Duckworth)  and Annette (Kristina Watt) Reille to discuss an incident at school where young Bruno Vallon was “assaulted” by Ferdinand  Reille .

The play grips you right  from the moment the Reille couple enters  the Vallon household. One senses, from their bodily stances, their pinched faces, their insincere smiles and  awkward intimacy that something is not right . The first contact is polite, slightly stiff, suggesting a sincere desire to resolve the issue (get an apology from little  Ferdinand the “aggressor”) but the mood is  already bristling with repressed anger on the part of both women, especially  Véronique whose son was the “victim”.  In spite of her attempt to act like  a perfect hostess- Véronique  has bought the best flowers, prepared the best clafouti – she can scarcely contain herself and her discourse already betrays  words that suggest her repressed  vision of the brutish Ferdinand, the same age as her own Bruno, bashing her son with a “weapon”  and smashing two of his teeth.

What transpires  from that moment is a flow of emotions, of explanations, of attempts to resolve the situation “nicely”. Very quickly however, we see that the altercation between the two boys is so trivial that it  soon becomes  a pretext for something else much nastier which  unfolds during the evening. This very fact makes the video prologue, an album of cute baby faces and sweet young boys set to  religious music, a moment of  ritual adoration of innocence,  completely off course as far as the real meaning of the play is concerned. It would be a good idea to remove all that.

Playwright  Reza wants to expose the hypocrisy, the superficiality  and  the vulgarity of the  upper and less upper Parisian middle class and she does so with great glee and much cruel irony.

Director Manson took over the space and used it to reconfigure the relationships between  these two  couples as he set them up in different battle lines, giving shape to the different kinds of confrontations that evolved from all this tension. Very quickly the frustration and anger over the behaviour of the other partner  have the husbands and wives at each other’s throats. These appear to be misunderstandings that were brewing long before the boys had their fight.

Then there was Alain Reille, deeply involved in his law business constantly on his cell,  not caring about the question at hand, while  Annette his wife, unable to contain her anger,  explodes in fury. The couples expose their own inner weaknesses to each other which are terribly humiliating and ferociously funny in that milieu where everyone is so obsessed with appearance.  The couples are positioned in groups of two or three, sitting on the sofa, or  circling the battle space of that living room preparing for the next verbal onslaught, like animals in a cage sizing up the enemy to see who will make the next move. The use of space was excellent and the impression of a social battle ground was immediately obvious.

Most importantly, we see those polite middle class masks crack and crumble  as the veneer melts away, as they lose control of their fine bourgeois manners and elegant exteriors exposing all the ugliness, their racism, their class snobbery, their frustration. In a final screaming match of gutter language – Véronique calls Annette’s son  Ferdinand a “rat snitch”,  Annette calls Bruno a “snivelling little faggot”, as the husbands  take on their own form of ranting. They all appear to lose control, and end up wallowing in the lower-class mud of their inadmissible language and gutter-style behaviour.  The truth is out of the bag and the question of the children is clealy the pretext which allows the playwright  to deal with the subject.

The play is full of cues that set us on course for this social “carnage” that the author undertakes, making fun of their class-based obsessions with the  most  appropriate  pastry  (such as the long  discussions about making clafouti  which must have appeared so trivial and silly to a Canadian audience) but which actually correspond to real dialogue one might hear in that milieu.   Our audience could easily  see the pretentiousness of  these well brought up ladies, almost having nervous breakdowns, because their lipstick is broken, or because  one of the boys poked his friend and broke a couple of teeth. The French audience would also quickly be aware that a much more serious behaviour takes place at schools all around them and especially the schools  in the Parisian suburbs  where newspapers are filled with stories of  police brutality, against youth, unemployment, demonstrations, burning cars, accidental deaths  and other  activities of the sort. The irony is almost too much to bear.

The reference to the performance of young  Bruno Vallon in the Moliere play  Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, an event of high culture for such a young man where he has to disguise himself as a girl, is at first praised by Annette in a gesture of studied admiration.   However, the mother of  Ferdinand, the “criminal”,  reveals her real cultural reaction to this “Faggot” on stage, as she  hurtles the final insult at Véronique before trashing the living room. The emotional  slipping and sliding of the characters is non-stop and we follow it with a slightly shocked sense of fun.

The quartet of actors feed off each other’s rhythms, each other’s cues, each other’s mood, moving at the right moments in this dance of social destruction so well-orchestrated by Manson. Mary Ellis is the distraught Véronique, a writer and a perfect dominating force  opposite her  ever conciliatory mate  Michel. She is forever repressing her anger but when this holding back becomes just too much, she explodes in tears and cries of rage.

John Koensgen on the other hand did not seem to be as browbeaten as he might have been. Nor does he react in the slightest way to the insults thrown at him by Alain who smirks at Michel’s working class background and the “common” nature of his professional activity as a hardware salesman.  Perhaps the director might have elicited more reaction of that kind. Kristina Watt as the sophisticated  Annette, the  wife of the cell phone addict Alain, is given to sudden outbursts of yelling , a trademark that for tells her  hysterical  insult when she “murders” the flowers, destroying the very symbol of reconciliation that the Vallon family had so carefully chosen, and completing the carnage in a most “proper”  way without hitting anyone.

Todd Duckworth, as the almost aloof and disdainful  lawyer defending a corrupt pharmaceutical company,  has not yet settled into the role of a high powered, nervous money-making French lawyer  from the upper crust of  Parisian society. He drags himself across the stage like an American, articulating too well, speaking too loudly, nodding his head with no sense of deviousness, no sense of wanting to hide any part of his conversation from the others. As well,  his engagement with those at the other end of the line is not intense enough. He yells just as the women yell but in Alain’s /Todd’s  case  that is not enough. There is something missing in his performance that bothered me. He does have the appropriate smirk at the right moments but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

The class distinctions change the power relationship in this meeting  and as these  twists and turns of  pretence, of role-playing, of controlling their gut feelings while trying to maintain  the expected decorum of their class, create a whole network of  shifting moods,  they all lose control of their middle class performances and collapse in a heap of unbearable individuals.

I kept wondering if the angry nature of that social critique was clear  to this audience, or if  their attention focussed specifically on the  triviality of the obsessions of which Bruno’s injuries became the most obvious while dismissing the rest as just silly. Discussing  recipes, expressing the thrill of excellent  pastry, focussing on the purchasing  of the right objects or shopping in the right districts of the city and making a big cultural event of  a child performing  a Molière play where the main character has to be disguised as a woman.  I have a feeling that the anger probably did not translate as it should have through this performance where the hysterical reactions of the women were perhaps seen as flights of emotional crisis and nothing further.

Do the Vallons get the apology they want from  the little “criminal” Ferdinand Reille.?  It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that all the social dirt is exposed in the end!! This is an angry exposé of class pretentiousness,  that appears to be an uneasy comedy and will  no doubt  take the Canadian audience  by surprise.

God of Carnage plays at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre until March 2. Call613-236-1425

This is a slightly modified version of the review posted on www.scenechanges.com

God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza

Directed by Ross Manson

Set designer : Brian Smith

Lighting: Rebecca Miller

Sound design: James Richardson

Cast:

Alain Reille………….Todd Duckworth

Véronique Vallon…….Mary Ellis

Michel Vallon…………John Koensgen

Annette Reille………….Kristina Watt

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