Watching two dreadful couples viciously tearing each other to shreds sounds like a painful way to spend an evening. Too close to home for some people, and too sad to contemplate for others.
But despite that gloomy-sounding synopsis, God of Carnage is a brilliant piece of comedy that has you laughing heartily at the savagery of man — and woman. The only pain is likely to be a stitch from chuckling so much.
Playwright Yasmina Reza describes her scripts as tragic comedies, but this is pure fun without a hint of tragedy. The couples have chosen their own fates, blast them, so why should we feel any sympathy? They certainly have no sympathy for each other, as they swipe and bicker with an acerbic wit that’s highly intelligent as well as enormously entertaining.
It all starts in a very genteel manor, as Veronique Vallon (Louise Saint-Claire) and her husband Martin (Michael Richard) invite another couple over for a discussion about school bullying. The Vallon’s boy has lost two teeth in an assault by the son of Alan (Jan Ellis) and Annette Raleigh (Anna-Mart van der Merwe) and the quartet sit down to resolve it.
Coffee and cake is served in a sophisticated lounge as they discuss the issue like civilised adults. That lasts as long as the first espresso, before the bitter but searingly funny attacks begin.
Reza’s script has been translated from its original French, which happily confirms that people everywhere can be equally obnoxious. She captures the long-running tensions and discord within the two marriages perfectly, and they rise to the surface fuelled by generous amounts of rum.
Director Alan Swerdlow has localised the play by adding a few slang words, giving the dialogue an easy flow and a nice South African intimacy. The four actors execute their roles superbly. Each is absolutely believable, not only for the words they say but for the alternative doses of venom or false niceness they apply them with.
Much of the discussion passes Alan by, as he takes endless phone calls as a self-important lawyer. His wife resents his lack of support, and tells the others how little he contributes to the relationship. Veronique is more interested in saving the world than in being loyal to her husband. And Martin reveals things about his own personality that condemn him even more than the exposes presented by his wife.
Acid tongue-lashings and bitchiness shoot across the stage with each actor playing their part brilliantly as social niceties are scraped away and a domestic riot ensues.
It’s a classy performance of a clever but highly entertaining script.
God Of Carnage runs at Montecasino Theatre until November 15 then Cape Town’s Theatre on the Bay from November 18 to December 12.
Review by Lesley Stones