Friday, February 06, 2015

God of Carnage / The MAC (until 21 February) - turning a childish altercation into a parental pantomime

Filling the width and height of the MAC’s main stage, Ciaran Bagnall’s set is reminiscent of a pressure cooker with wooden ribs curving up above a living room’s soft furnishings. A cream carpet cries out not to be sullied as the four actors make their choreographed entrance at the start of God of Carnage.

Two sets of parents have come together to discuss what to do after one’s son hit the other’s with a bamboo cane and knocked out two incisor teeth. Should an apology be offered? Will Ferdinand and Bruno be reconciled? Can the parents reach a consensus that allows both families to move on positively?

Over the 80 minute, one act, one scene play, layers are stripped away from the cast as each character reveals their true nature to the enthralled audience. Scratch behind the surface and these well-to-do professionals have a rotten core.

Veronique (played by Ali White) is an author and an expert on Africa. She controls the early conversation, outraged that her son was “disfigured” by his playmate. Her flaming hair is a visual clue about her at first overly assertive and later more aggressive personality.

Husband Michel (Dan Gordon in a part that could have been written for him) starts out subdued, ineffectively echoing his wife’s statements and serving up slices of clafoutis (fruit tart) before his inner Neanderthal emerges like a red-faced Incredible Hulk and he loses his inhibitions and spousal deference.
Michel: Children consume and fracture our lives.

Alain (Sean Sloan) is a corporate lawyer and is no doubt that his son is “a savage”. Conversations on his incessantly ringing Blackberry take priority over any drama happening around him in the room. He’s trying to cover-up a troublesome story about a drug with harmful side-effects by blaming the press rather than admitting liability.
Alain: At least all this has given us a new recipe.

Veronique: I’d have preferred it if it hadn’t cost my son’s teeth.

Annette (Kathy Kiera Clarke) works in wealth management. Her calm exterior belies an impatience with her distracted husband who insists on calling her by a demeaning nickname.

A sudden bout of sickness disrupts the uneasy discussion and thereafter every fifteen minutes or so another intervention significantly worsens the characters’ relationships. When the rum comes out of the wooden sideboard, high heels are kicked off, tongues loosen further, and scatter cushions are … scattered.

The fast-paced play has a mathematical quality, with symmetry between the fathers’ subplots (hamster-cide and pharmaceutical malpractice) and a regular progression between warring factions (the couples fight; husbands square up to wives; Michel sides with Annette against Veronique and Alain; etc). The denouement comes suddenly – too suddenly for me – as the playwright pulls on the handbrake and rips the audience away from the inter- and intra-family quarrel.

Yasmina Reza’s play (translated into English by Christopher Hampton) is incredibly wordy, yet Emma Jordan’s direction permits the action to pause at key moments, giving the audience time to draw breath and allows gentle waves of laughter to spread across the stalls. Garth McConaghie’s choice of very low background music subtly changes as the tempo of conflict quickens, following rather than leading the atmosphere in the living room. As always with the MAC, it’s the small details that count: the sound of a phone ringing comes from the precise direction of the actor holding the phone.

While the cast is local, their accents are kept neutral. It becomes very sweary and the translated play keeps French place names and references to “madam” and “monsieur” along with a phrasing that ensures you don’t forget that the action is always taking place somewhere far from Belfast.

The distance makes you an observer, able to dispassionately critique the contradictory morals, specious arguments, and dodgy parenting on display. How do children’s gangs in Paris compare with fighting in Africa? However, the script is crying out for adaptation to a Northern Ireland location with local occupations and local issues.

As you leave the theatre, you’ll have laughed, winced and you’ll need to take a deep breath and relax. Other than Christmas shows, Prime Cut’s God of Carnage is the funniest play I’ve seen in Belfast since Spelling Bee in May 2013.

Well worth catching in the MAC before the run ends on 21 February. Ticket prices range from £12 to £25.

Production shots: Ciaran Bagnall

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