CW – discussions of anxiety and vomiting

I have to say that I was apprehensive to see a production of Yazmin Reza’s God of Carnage. I’ve never understood the hype of the play, why it deserved such critical acclaim and an adaptation with Kate Winslet and Christopher Waltz – like seriously were the two of them strapped for cash? Fun fact, the film adaptation did away with the ‘God of’ part of the title, choosing instead just to go for the simple, blunt, say it as it is, Carnage. Yes, ‘carnage’ is an exceptional word to describe this frustrating mess of a play.

I guess I should give a plot summary, that’s what normally happens in these sorts of things, but it’s difficult to do that when nothing really happens but ninety minutes of petty squabbles, misunderstandings, and desperately poor attempts at social commentary. Basically, two couples from very different walks of life- both so heavily stereotyped in their characterisation that it makes the play feel ridiculously out-of-touch – meet to try and reach a truce after their sons got physical in the school playground. As the play progresses, and we (far too quickly) realise that this settlement is never going to be reached (duh), awkwardness and side eye quickly descends into complete chaos. The play, inevitably, ends with the adults behaving more like children than their 11-year-old sons. Think Lord of the Flies, but with a chaise lounge and a hamster (but more on that later).

But it’s not the actors’ fault that the play is dire (okay maybe it’s not that bad, just depends on how you feel about the Theatre of the Absurd). Some of the acting – particularly at the beginning the beginning – is incredible. One of the key issues with God of Carnage as a play is that nothing happens for the first twenty minutes; the parents just sit making cringey, uncomfortable small talk. However, we were quickly pulled from this pit of awkwardness by Imogen Front’s brilliant (and brilliantly relatable) Véronique Vallon. Her characterisation of that classic over-achieving primary school mother is perfect, right down to her fiddling with her reems of beads and talking (a little too) excitedly about her latest art project. She even produced cake, and it looked tasty too –really made me aware of my lack of ice-cream (a saga which seems to characterise every single The Oxford Blue trip to the theatre!). Michael Yates, as Alain Reille- the high-flying lawyer with a very disturbing absence of any form of moral compass – was meant to be her foil, a dynamic that seemed to hold so much promise in the play’s opening scenes. However, while both characters were well acted, there was little chemistry between the pair and so, with so much of the play being dependent on the dynamic between Alain and Véronique, much of the action fell rather flat.

I think I’d broaden this to the whole production. You can’t have a play about marriage, about family, about human relationships and have zero chemistry between any character. Seriously, I felt like the characters were more attached to a pet hamster that Poddy Wilson’s Michelle Varon left stranded on the side of a road (a ridiculously distracting saga – though hilariously well-acted I’ll give it to Wilson! – which takes up far too much time – controversial opinion but could it have been cut down slightly?) than they were to each other. Individually, they were all stellar, I really found myself investing in their personal stories. I particularly loved Bella Stock’s handling Annette Reille’s anxiety, how it developed from subtle struggles to make conversation, to vomit-inducing panic attacks, to complete hysteria (I really hope those tulips weren’t real, or those books too expensive). It’s a tough gig to make vomiting look good on stage, it’s an even tougher gig for an actor to make anxiety look anything but ridiculous and melodramatic, especially given that Reza dedicates so few lines to her mental state- particularly in such an absurd play. Stock was fabulous on both accounts.

However, when the actors properly came together the cracks began to show. Without chemistry to give it grounding, it quickly descended into a shouting match. Carnage, but with no God to give it order and structure. Was this the point? Possibly, especially if we are getting philosophical, but I feel it could have been made clearer for an audience too Oxford-exhausted for philosophy (and pretention). The play charts the breakdown in two marriages, and yet it didn’t seem there was anything there that could  be broken down in the first place. People were crying, throwing themselves on the floor, throwing up, and nobody seemed to bat an eyelid. Or, when they did, you didn’t feel any sense of emotional engagement (sorry but rubbing someone on the back and looking vaguely sympathetic is not enough for me). Towards the end of the play Alain tells Annette, ‘Just because their marriage is fucked doesn’t mean we have to compete’. This could equally be applied to the acting, which constantly felt like a competition. It really seemed like they were each taking a ‘might is right’ approach to grasping for the limelight. Yes, they were acting well, but they just weren’t working together. Although maybe, to give director Alison Hall the benefit of the doubt, given how God of Carnage is very much a play of competition and not collaboration, this was the point.

All this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy myself. I had a lot of fun watching the actors descend (in a matter of seconds!) from cool civilisation to bestial chaos. Now we shouldn’t downplay this, I have never enjoyed reading God of Carnage, seriously I have a worse relationship with it than Sisyphus does with his boulder. Issues aside, Alison Hall’s God of Carnage was a brilliant stab at what is some disgustingly difficult and fundamentally flawed source material.

Jessica Steadman

Jess Steadman (she/her) is the Senior Cultures Editor at The Oxford Blue. She is a second year studying Medieval Literature at Univ and is from (mostly sunny) Essex. If you want to find her, she is probably...