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God of Carnage at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre

What catches your eye as you enter the auditorium of the Lyric Hammersmith is Lily Arnold’s amazing set (more of this later) for this revival of Yasmine Reza’s 2008 play God Of Carnage. It’s a glossy modern room with large contemporary lamps, pristine white furniture, an African tribal mask, and a coffee table with coffee table books on it – whoever lives here is doing very well for themselves. In fact, the couple who live there with their two children are Michael Novak (Martin Hutson) who has a business selling kitchen equipment (evidently very successfully) and his wife Veronica (Freema Agyeman) who’s a writer currently working in a book shop. On this particular evening they’re joined by another couple, Alan Raleigh (Ariyon Bakare) who’s a high-powered lawyer and his wife Annette (Dinita Gohil) who’s in “wealth management”.

Ariyon Bakare and Dinita Gohil in God of Carnage at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre © The Other Richard.
Ariyon Bakare and Dinita Gohil in God of Carnage at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre © The Other Richard.

The reason they’re all there is to discuss an incident where Raleigh’s 11-year-old son Ferdinand has knocked out two teeth belonging to Bruno, the Novak’s son during an argument. They need to agree on what to do next – should Ferdinand be punished? Should he come and apologise to Bruno? The evening starts out with the four characters acting with great civility towards one another but it soon degenerates as all normality is stripped away and they become aggressive and savage as they attack each other – it’s almost a middle-class “Lord Of The Flies” but in a nicer location. The two couples start out supporting each other but as the evening degenerates, their ostensibly perfect marriages which seem to be built on firm foundations are actually built of RAAC and they crumble into dust as defence becomes attack.

One of the problems with God Of Carnage is that there is no-one the audience can empathise with. Michael is a wimp without a backbone and the previous night, has put his young daughter’s hamster outside because it was making too much noise and Veronica is a drama queen who has very little in the way of redeeming features. Alan is always on the phone sorting out problems with a dodgy big pharma client and has had little to do with the upbringing of Ferdinand as he’s always busy with work and Annette doesn’t seem to have any mothering instincts at all – they’re all so unlikeable.

Another problem is that the play doesn’t seem to know whether it’s a heavy, philosophical drama or a comedy that doesn’t have many funny lines – in fact, Christopher Hampton who translated the play from the original French says his favourite line is “Puking seems to have perked you up”! When the four characters aren’t arguing or getting drunk on rum, they each get their chance to philosophise on their own pet subject but it’s only fleeting and the last twenty minutes or so tend to drag although the play is only ninety minutes long.

Directed by Nicholas La Barrie, at times the four performers tend to either overact or underact and they never thrill as they probably should – maybe it’s because of the dislikeable characters they’re playing? Richard Howell’s lighting design is interesting with a ring of light that starts high up on the back of the set, gets lower and lower as the evening progresses and by the end, when the mood has turned sour, the characters are almost silhouetted and harshly lit.

Getting back to Lily Arnold’s set, it’s on a revolve which turns so slowly it’s almost imperceptible. In her programme notes, she says that it’s “a way of changing the audience’s perspective of the characters”. The problem with this is that at times we have characters with their backs to the audience and towards the end of the play when it’s coming to a climax, from where I was sitting, one character’s face was obscured by a bunch of tulips and another’s by the aforementioned tribal mask!

God Of Carnage at its core shows how civilised people can soon turn on each other and how a veneer of normal social conventions can be so easily stripped away and turn into psychodrama. As an attack on the bourgeoisie (most of the audience?), it seems we’re supposed to see either ourselves or people we know in these characters – fortunately, I didn’t recognise anyone I know and hopefully never will.

3 Star Review

Review by Alan Fitter

The other day in the park, 11-year-old Ferdinand knocked 11-year-old Bruno’s two front teeth out. Their parents meet up to have a civil conversation about the misdemeanours of their children in a suitably calm and rational way… what can go wrong? As night falls chaos ensues with explosive tantrums, name-calling and tears.

God of Carnage is designed by Lily Arnold who returns to the Lyric following the triumph of A Doll’s House (2019), the lighting design is by Richard Howell, sound design and composition by Asaf Zohar, casting by Heather Basten CDG, fight direction by Bethan Clark, vocal coaching by Christopher Holt, assistant direction by Mo Korede, senior casting assistance by Fran Cattaneo, and casting assistance by Iman Wilson.

Recorded musicians are Amaia String Quartet, featuring Alex Lomeiko and Milan Berginc on the violin, Varinia Oyola Rebaza on the viola, and Molly McWhirter on the cello.

Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
Lyric Square, King Street, London, W6 0QL
Box office: 020 8741 6850

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