Brighton Fringe 2022
Directed by Roger Kay, with the Rialto production team providing a minimalist set space and lighting.
Till May 14th
Two middle-class Parisian couples meet for the first time. The hosts want to discuss amicably the fact that their little Bruno has had his two front teeth knocked out by their guests’ little Ferdinand, because?
They’re so civilised. That’s why by the end there’s books and a mobile phone wetted and destroyed in different ways; and two marriages just a bit in question. Oh and the hamster. What of it? And where?
Welcome to Yasmina Reza’s 2008 play God of Carnage which comes to the Rialto Theatre in a cracking production directed by Roger Kay, with this modern classic filleted of ten minutes to run to just 65. It works supremely well – partly because the acting’s so consummate.
Lawyer Alain – Tom Dussek – is only there on sufferance. Because his exec wife Jenny Delisle’s Annette not only wants reconcilement, but really shouldn’t apologies be mutual? Swiftly the veneer of bonhomie shifts as Sophie Dearlove’s Veronique, art director and recent Africa campaigner, shows her unbroken teeth. She’s not only a humourless virtue-signaller, she wants truth and reconciliation. Acknowledgment.
Alain, who’s been to Darfur and can tell you every kind of weapon used in Africa, is less convinced. But it’s Annette who’s slowly furious. And slowly feels sick. And sick with Alain who’s repeatedly on his mobile non-stop, defending a big pharma‘s use of a drug Antril that makes Thalidomide look naturopathic. And Alain’s isn’t the only phone ringing. Michel’s sick mother keeps calling. She’s using a drug called Antril.
Dussek’s apparently burly performance belies spot-on timing picking up and ending calls as he shifts attack from Veronique to Annette, demonstrably finding out their weak spots like the top lawyer he is. By pretending not to. Dussek’s commanding in his semi-detached series of swoops.
And why won’t Veronique’s liberal people-pleasing husband – Neil James’ Michel – agree with everything she says, and not just back her up 90%? It’s then Veronique reveals this liberal man who sells doorknobs wholesale and clearly meant to be the househusband, has done the unforgiveable. Hating rodents, he’s let their daughter’s hamster onto the street, where he admits it sits frozen, then vanishes.
James is exquisitely laid-back dealing platitudes and absolutes with the same infuriating calm. He ends offering Alain a cigar. This is too much. When Ferdinand’s parents reveal Bruno wouldn’t let their son Ferdinand join his gang – a gang Veronique and Michel hadn’t guessed at – reactions are very different. Veronique’s horrified. Michel is rather delighted. It tips him towards atavistic Alain.
As the husbands’ behaviour seems more unforgivable, they naturally form an alliance. And having nearly left three times, and Annette vomited, twice (Delisle horribly good), there’s vintage rum. Annette can’t take drink. Alain can’t take being contradicted. Veronique can’t take anyone not sharing her worldview and Michel can’t take Veronique. And nor finally Annette Alain.
Reza’s genius is to let alliances shift. Whilst male bonding stays relatively stable, the women fall in and out of the sons they’re invested in as Parisian tiger mothers. The men take it differently. To them it seems as natural as letting out a hamster onto the world.
Dearlove’s gracious Veronique starts to shiver apart, her whole identity informed by how civilised she feels she above all is being. Dearlove’s shift hinting cracks of a veneer revealing humourless absolutism is exquisitely done, through bared teeth. Veronique’s revulsion at both men is matched by her having condemned Annette as phoney as she exits to the bathroom, but is crucially overheard. Yet Veronique needs alliances. So does Annette, increasingly enraged by her husband’s disconnect though connecting elsewhere. There’s a thought.
Delisle’s passive-aggressive (think vomiting) Annette wants parity, having not admitted guilt. She’s more like her lawyer husband than either would admit. Delisle’s way with negotiation is to get a deal that looks like compromise. Delisle works this skilfully, showing how Annette blindly oversteps because the self-sabotage of a tiger mother is never admitting guilt. But oh so reasonably with an arch of eyebrow. Bruno’s the injured one, but didn’t he incite? With Delisle you get the feeling that if not politically then at some level Annette’s saying with Trump ‘there’s good on both sides’ with that degree of blandness.
It’s up to Alain to summarise the case: ‘I believe in the god of carnage’ he erupts, Michel with him all the way. That their behaviour, that of their children is merely atavistic, just as what he’s seen in Africa blows away all Veronique can virtue-signal.
By this time there’s real carnage and more to follow the lives of this quartet. You must see how this small masterpiece works its way through Kay’s skilfully-edited version.
Acting here is tighter than any version I’ve seen. That’s partly down to script editing but there’s a taut use of the Rialto’s small studio space that’s unbeatable: two chaise-long sofas, a coffee table with art books, a drinks cabinet upstage, and right a clothes-rack. The Rialto production team come up with a minimalist space and lighting the actors weave round like a slick nightmare.
Though there’s Dennis Kelly’s Love and Money at the Lantern to follow, this revival of a modern classic has to be the best of the Fringe so far.