Review by Raphael Kohn
It’s a funny word, ‘Carnage’. Carnage can be a most dramatic, warlike violent chaos, found outside a football stadium in which two rival teams are going head-to-head, as are their fans outside. Indeed, ‘Carnage’ can also be an apt term for the state of the UK Government in 2023. Yasmina Reza’s 2006 play, originally in French and translated meticulously by Christopher Hampton, takes ‘Carnage’ to a whole new level, a more psychological, more intense and more hilarious level than I’ve seen before. And the end result is something truly excellent.
Originally written in 2006 and with an English language premiere in 2009, God of Carnage is a dark comedy with bite aplenty to make you laugh one second and gasp the next. Before the events of the play begin, a young boy Ferdinand knocks two of Bruno’s front teeth out in a fight. What we see unfold is not the two children at all, but their parents, attempting to meet and resolve the issue together amicably and civilly, but whose disagreements begin to unravel deep and dark rifts between the characters, taking the audience in a fast-paced rip through some very unexpected twists.
It is the bite and the ferocity of Reza’s writing that truly makes God of Carnage special – despite the script being performed being the witty words of translator Christopher Hampton, Reza’s dark wit permeates through the performance. Challenging the audience with sensationally funny moments followed almost instantly by moments so shocking the audience audibly gasps, it’s a play that is certainly not afraid to not just jolt the audience with its brutality but takes delight in its shock value. Tackling its themes head-on, including a hilarious and clever examination of modern gender roles, God of Carnage revels in its toying with power dynamics and dark themes.
Yet without such a brilliant cast, God of Carnage may well have struggled to hold the audience in the palm of its hand as well as it did – but thankfully, this is an ensemble so exceptional that you’ll struggle to find them putting a single foot wrong. They are led by Freema Agyeman as Veronica, whose irritatingly posh interjections and insistences catalyse the snowballing chaos brilliantly. Not only is she a master at work when delivering some of the punchiest, funniest lines in the whole production, she is also so absorbing when reacting, reflecting and responding to others that it's hard to take your eyes off her as she saunters her way around the stage.
Her counterpoint mainly comes in the form of Ariyon Bakare’s Alan, who comes head-to-head with her frequently. With a speaking voice smooth as silk, yet delivering a characterisation as vile and venomous as a snake, Bakare is a gripping performer from start to finish. Likewise, playing his wife Annette, Dinita Gohil brings the laughs with her initially docile portrayal which soon becomes just as biting as the others, while Martin Hutson is a laugh-out-loud success as Michael (Veronica’s husband).
But it is not each performer’s individual work that makes this production what it is – far from
it, it is the ensemble work they create together that is the hidden ingredient. Casting director Heather Basten has assembled four actors that not only have their unique talents, but who work together brilliantly, bouncing off each other as if they have been living as bickering couples for decades. They are a polished, firm quartet of exemplary performers.
Pulling the production together is the work of Nicholai La Barrie, whose direction seals the
performances together into a pacy, clever package. La Barrie perhaps sacrifices a few laughs here and there to focus on the darkness at play, and while this does lead to very
slight lapses in energy where the energy could have accelerated to oblivion, the darkness really does come through with a strong focus on the character’s razor-sharp digs at each other and rip-roaring aggression. This all comes together ingeniously on Lily Arnold’s icy
white stage, revolving so slowly that you can barely notice it move until you realise props are noticeably further away than before, with Richard Howell’s intelligent lighting recreating a sunset into the darkness of night creatively.
It's a funny word, ‘Carnage’. After seeing this production of God of Carnage at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, maybe I’m persuaded that this truly is the most chaotic ‘Carnage’ of them all – proving that the pen is mightier than the sword, the most bite comes from the venom of Reza’s characters. Despite coming in at 90 minutes without an interval, it moves so fast that you barely realise the time as it reaches its climax as God of Carnage lets rip in the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, a true delight for those of us who revel in the depths of a pitch-black dark comedy.
God of Carnage plays at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith until 30Th September 2023. Tickets can be purchased from https://lyric.co.uk/shows/god-of-carnage/
Photos by The Other Richard