Years of consuming art in its different forms – seeing plays, reading novels, listening to music and watching films – has left me with a profound fear of the institution of marriage. The older I get, the more friends and colleagues begin to think about settling down. They fantasize about dresses and names for their first children, plan feature walls for their dream homes, think about cars and refrigerator deposits and family pets.
Seemingly forever on the periphery of such discussions, my perception of marriage remains grounded in a Hardy-esque nightmare where to say ‘I do’ means to acquiesce to a loss of self, to the terrifying possibility of predictability, to in-laws and to arguments, and, above all else, to the banal threat of eternal visits to B&Q on Saturday afternoons.
Reading the programme to Yazmina Reza’s comedy The God of Carnage in the moments before the lights went down at The People’s Theatre in Jesmond, I braced myself for yet another hour and a half that promised to shore up this particular fear. The director’s notes spoke of the facade of middle-class matrimonial respectability, the reality of ‘knowing nothing’ and the intriguing question, ‘what lies beneath the surface? The programme also told me that Reza’s play was published in 2006. Originally written in French, this performance was based on a translation by Christopher Hampton, first performed to wide acclaim in the West End in 2008.
The setting is a familiar one, evoking an easily recognised stereotype before the characters have even taken to the stage. The action takes place in the overtly middle class living room of Michel (Ian Willis) and Veronique (Rye Mattick) Vallon; a room adorned with a series of African masks, tribal print throws, painted sculptures of giraffes and other exotic icons of far-flung cultures, speaking of a carefully cultivated modern bohemianism.
A vase of imported dutch tulips sits at one side of the stage – at the other a bookshelf stacked with travel books and tourist guides. The picture that we are supposed to take away is clear: this is the home of stereotypical Guardian-reading liberal intellectuals, designed so as to impress upon us a sense of learning, travel and open-mindedness.
On a wicker coffee table in the centre of the room, art books and pseudo-intellectual studies are piled, later to fall victim to an unfortunate and symbolic case of projectile vomiting from Annette Reille (Alison Carr). Annette is visiting the Vallons with her husband Alain (Colin Jeffrey) after their son, Bruno, hits 9-year-old Ferdinand Vallon with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth and causing friction between the two couples as to how best to deal with the incident.
The play’s central premise is the idea that adults are less equipped to cope with conflict than their children. Years of repression and social conditioning have rendered them unable to say what they really mean, and what starts as an amicable discussion soon spirals into an uncontrollable orgy of name-calling, uncomfortable truths and repressed resentment, fuelled, eventually, by alcohol and an unexplored sense of extra-marital lust between the two couples.
The all-pervading role that modern technology has come to play in all of our lives is particularly powerfully executed, as the outside world continually intrudes upon the Vallons’ living room. The incessant sound of Alain’s mobile phone and snippets of unrelated conversation highlight the absurdity of a culture which demands that we render ourselves constantly available, and where unrelated situations and people mingle, often jarringly, with one another. As Annette says with marked exasperation, “that mobile makes mincemeat of our lives” and each time it vibrates there is a palpable sense of irritation from the characters and also within the audience.
The fast-moving dialogue onstage is continually broken by a one-sided conversation that we cannot understand, highlighting the role that technology often plays in placing distance between us, as opposed to bringing us closer together. The mobile’s destination, eventually, is in the vase of tulips, and this action gains a small cheer from some in the audience.
Among a strong cast who carried the dialogue easily in this one act play, Mattick’s powerhouse performance as the self-righteous leftie Veronique was stand-out. She was at once the picture of liberal, middle class, highbrow morality – the next moment she was snarling and savage, prowling the outskirts of the stage, wild-eyed and clawing at the air, her hair pinned artily into a bun and tied with a black headband at the start of the play, dishevelled and unkempt by the finish.
Carr’s more understated portrayal of Annette gained some of the loudest laughs of the evening, her expressions of grim dismay and disbelief perfectly timed so as to puncture Veronique’s overblown moralising. Willis played a convincingly desperate Michel Vallon, at first mild-mannered and subservient to his strong-willed wife, before displaying his true exasperation with his life, delivering, what was, for me, the line of the night: “My wife passed me off as a leftie, but I’m fundamentally uncouth.”
Jeffrey, meanwhile, was a particularly odious Alain: sexist, uncaring and unpleasant, with Jeffrey carrying off a sense of smug aloofness perfectly. The play begins with all characters believing that they are part of guaranteed teams, with the unconditional support of their partners. It ends with each character coming to the realisation that they are, in fact, alone – although they, of course, have known this all along. It is merely the fact that the veneer of respectability has at last been shattered that allows them to see this with clarity and to verbalise thoughts and feelings that had hitherto remained unsaid.
As I left the theatre in the half-light to walk home across Jesmond’s deserted Armstrong Bridge, I was struck by the fact that this was a performance about the masks that society conditions us to wear – masks for strangers, masks for those close to us, and masks for ourselves. Can we continue to wear these masks forever? And what would happen in our own lives if we, just for one evening, let these masks slip?
Yazmina Reza’s The God of Carnage runs at the People’s Theatre, Jesmond, Newcastle until May 9, 2015. For more info, click here