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The God of Carnage, London & Chester

I saw the original London production of Yasmina Resa’s God of Carnage in 2008 and on July 31st of this year I had a chance to see the play again, this time at the Chester Playhouse, in Chester, Nova Scotia. An unfair comparison? Perhaps not so much as you think. The God of Carnage is a one set play that obeys the unities: the action runs over a single evening—it’s a relatively simple show to put on. The cast? The London version starred Ralph Fiennes as Alain. As well as his films, I’ve seen Fiennes in Trevor Nunn’s The Tempest, so I’d never underestimate him as an actor. But Charlie Rhyndress, who played the role in Chester, has a rough physicality that more suits the character than Fiennes’ blue-blooded elegance; and the rest of the cast were fully up to their parts as well. (Kirstin Howell as Veronique was especially good.) The direction was straightforward and clear, and if the action dragged a moment here and there, I’d say that was more the fault of the play. All in all, Chester put up a good account of itself.

In fact, the success of the Chester production allowed me to reconsider the meaning of the play, and what’s happened to it since I first saw it. Ms Resa is giving us a satire on bourgeois values, the politically correct. Fighting in a park, the son of Alain and Annette has knocked out two of Bruno’s teeth with a stick, Bruno being the son of Michel and Veronique. We’re looking in on their “civilized” discussion of this event—an adult, rational, reasonable attempt to come to grips with what’s happened. But bourgeois civilization is the thinnest of veneers. Veronique’s concern with the war in Darfur is narcissistic and hypocritical, Annette’s great goal is another pair of shoes and the more perfect manipulation of her husband. Michel really wants a drink. Alain, though he keeps up with the others in his verbal allegiance to the good and do-gooding, is never off his cell-phone, working out a cover-up for a pharmaceutical company. His is the most honest voice in the play. As the evening degenerates into racism and homophobia, he announces his faith in “the god of carnage.” The boys’ battle in the park is where it’s really at.

And of course we’re supposed to laugh. We do, a little. The play is nowhere near as funny as Art, but it has its moments, even a genuine coup de theatre: Annette vomits all over the coffee table, catching everyone by surprise. Yet there was an uneasiness in Chester’s sea air. The basis of the play—which has been enormously successful in London, New York, Paris and Berlin—is a collusive complacency between author, characters and the audience. It’s a joke we’re all in on. Like Alain—like all of them—we’ve good enough manners to pretend to believe in the right and the good, but we know it’s just an act. Fuck Darfur. Pass the bottle—and what was that stock tip? As Ms Resa’s characters reveal this, the audience feels great self-satisfaction: they’re no better than we are.

Except it isn’t so funny now…the joke falls a little flat. The West End production of The God of Carnage opened on the 25th of March, 2008: on September 15th, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. We now live in “the new normal” created by that event. Ms Resa’s “truth” is everywhere, all around us. The god of carnage is Wolfgang Schauble’s arrogant face, and he’s openly worshipped by all established power. The veneer of civilization has the craquelure of a piece of burnt pork; the rot oozes up. Great satirists, like Swift, passionately believe and are outraged by the world’s decline; Ms Reza believes only in her knowingness and ambition, and she finds satisfaction in both. Yet the fate of her play is ironically revealing for now we know there never was anything to believe in, not even Ms Resa’s cleverness. In the end, after all, the joke was on us.