Wednesday, 21 October 2009

On God of Carnage @ Sydney Opera House

Sometimes it's actually better to know what to expect. I must have assumed that 'God of Carnage' the Sydney Theatre Company's production of a play by French writer Yasmina Reza would be serious. By 'serious' I don't even mean sober, let alone miserable, just about things that were serious, things that might make us question our relationship with one another, our surroundings or even ourselves. The shock of finding a sitcom wearing such portentous clothes is still irritating me.

I recall living on London when 'Art', an earlier Reza play, was on it's interminable West End run. Heavily advertised on the Tube as the run and its ever rotating cast continued it was like descending the escalator of the celebrity pecking order: movie star, stage actor, BBC actor, soap star. I'm not sure it ever reached 'reality TV star', even ten years ago we were more innocent. It was perfect, play as logo, one could see it or act in it and feel just the right (not too much) level of engagement with contemporary art, it was at a moment when 'Art' with a big A and Culture with a big C had become essential accessories.

Today Issues with a big I and Politics with a big P have that role, thus the silly unfocussed romp through issues that we find in 'God of Carnage': parenting, Kokoschka, class, genocide, corporate corruption. All are waved past the audience as a checklist of things serious people should be interested in.

This reminds me of British theatre of the nineteen fifties, of the limp and asexual bedroom farces that dominated the stage before Joe Orton got his mucky fingers on them. In these plays actors would often be caught between doors with trousers around their ankles as fumbling lust propelled them to another failed assignation. In 'God of Carnage' you can replace this with the hammy pregnant pauses after a character has delivered a laboured paradox, in both cases the emphasis is on the absence. The fifties plays were as full of real sex as 'God of Carnage' is of ideas.

The petulant baby boomer stirrings of 1968 still seem to permeate French drama, that not quite coherent whine about the aesthetic insults of capitalism. This the main villain of the piece appear to be a mobile phone, which might have been quite droll in 1995.

The four actors come on stage and run for their sterotypes, the shouty self-righteous academic, the proudly dumb tradesman (and naturally shaven headed), the sleazy (and equally naturally upper class English) lawyer. Such as anyone has a plum part it’s the ‘wealth manager’ who gets to both projectile vomit and shower the stage in an explosion of tulips. It's tough to say that the projectile vomiter stole the show but it was, at least, a moment of high (although fairly predictable) slapstick amidst a belch of pleased with itself contrivance. The problem might be that this is neither a didactic piece that presents an essay on the worlds ills nor is it a human piece that explores ambiguity and compromise, it's simply a glib set of aphorisms mouthed by ciphers. Not good.

I'll be honest here and say that the sheer hammy middle-brow smugness of 'God of Carnage' reminds me of why I find it a real force of will to attend the theatre (and certainly to sign up for subscriptions!). Please spare me this again.

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