Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Until April 1;
Transferring to Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
God Of Carnage
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Until March 25
Reviewed by Mark Brown
First, a confession. Throughout almost a quarter of a century of reviewing theatre, I have never fallen in love with the theatre of Noel Coward.
This, in the UK at least, is the theatrical equivalent of belching in church. Coward, the prevailing view suggests, is the greatest wit and stylist of 20th-century British drama.
However, while I have never doubted his capacity with the droll bon mot, plays such as Private Lives and Present Laughter have left me unconvinced. Coward’s comedies of manners, I have always felt, are somewhat toothless compared with those of Oscar Wilde. Coward, I thought, shares some of the Irish genius’s comic talent, but lacks Wilde’s devastating satirical bite.
I wouldn’t say that this new production of Hay Fever (co-produced by the Lyceum, Edinburgh and the Citizens, Glasgow, and directed by the Citz’s artistic director Dominic Hill) has brought about a Damascene conversion in me, but it has certainly raised Coward in my estimation. Set in the well-heeled, entirely dysfunctional household of the self-styled “bohemian” (and preposterously misnamed) Bliss family, it is a rollicking comedy with a sinister undertow.
We have the dubious pleasure of meeting not-quite-retired actress Judith Bliss, her semi-estranged husband David (who is a commercially successful novelist), and their precocious, grown-up children Sorel and Simon. Each of them has, unbeknownst to the others, invited prospective lovers down to their country house for the weekend.
The couplings – involving an infatuated boxer (Sandy Tyrell), a young woman of low self-confidence (Jackie Coryton), a “diplomatist” (Richard Greatham) and a middle-aged socialite (Myra Arundel) – are all cross-generational. Not that they last long, as everyone, not least the seemingly fickle Blisses, appears to fancy someone else.
As the Blisses play their guests like the piano in the corner of the sitting room, it suddenly becomes clear that they are acting out a scene from the very worst of Judith’s stage vehicles. It is a spectacularly disconcerting moment, taking us out of the reliable realms of situation comedy and into something altogether more menacing; as if we have suddenly shifted into the consciously uncertain territory of a Sam Shepard play.
Hill’s production is perfectly attuned to this shift, and, indeed, to the sudden, absurdist acceleration in the drama. Designer Tom Piper’s set, with its absent walls and hyper-real, painted backdrop, is the very essence of metatheatricality.
The acting is universally excellent. Susan Wooldridge is deliciously self-dramatising as Judith, while Benny Young (who, it seems, we must now call Baxter-Young on the grounds of a somewhat belated ruling from actors’ union Equity) is an outrageously arrogant David.
This is Coward funnier, yet less frivolous, and darker than we usually see him. A treat for fans, no doubt, and an unexpected pleasure for sceptics such as myself.
If I have long been dubious about Coward, I have been even less convinced of the talents of Yasmina Reza. The French dramatist is the queen of the perfectly-formed, highly-stylised, but ultimately disingenuous and hollow drawing room comedy.
She is, perhaps, best known for her smash hit comic drama Art, a sneering, populist attack on abstract art and anyone who likes it. Like that piece, her 2006 play God Of Carnage takes aim at a ludicrous caricature of the liberal middle class.
Famously adapted for the screen by Roman Polanski (in his 2011 film, entitled simply Carnage) the drama follows the attempted diplomacy of two couples, the Vallons and the Reilles, following a violent incident involving their sons. As alcohol becomes an ever-more influential player in proceedings, the characters’ masks of liberalism and civility begin to slip.
Imagine Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party dragged into the twenty-first century and combined with the unsubtle humour of a Carry On film and the misanthropic inclinations of William Golding’s novel Lord Of The Flies, and you have something approximating Reza’s play.
The conceit of the piece (that inside every western liberal there is a raging brutalist straining to get out) enables Reza to indulge doubly in her penchant for cartoonism. One set of stereotypes (such as ultra-humanist Veronique Vallon, who is writing a book about atrocities in Sudan, and Alain Reille, a cynical lawyer engaged in damage limitation for a pharmaceutical firm) is replaced by another as the characters’ underlying racism, misogyny and homophobia come tumbling from their booze-loosened lips.
Director Gareth Nicholls’s production plays the piece with a pretty straight bat; even if designer Karen Tennent’s decision to surround the set (the Vallons’ perfect, white living room) with a children’s ball pool has all the subtlety of a proverbial brick. Most of the cast cope well with the two-dimensionality of their characters and the demands of slapstick timing.
Richard Conlon’s Alain is at his detestable best when insisting that his son, Ferdinand (who hit the Vallons’ boy, Bruno, in the face with a stick) is a “savage”. Anita Vettesse (Veronique) and Lorraine McIntosh (Annette Reill) lose control splendidly; although Colin McCredie (Michel Vallon) overplays his grinning caricature throughout.
It is ironic that this production opens at the same time as James Macdonald’s staging of Edward Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Albee’s dark, metaphorical comedy of social, marital and gender warfare is, surely, the play God Of Carnage wants to be when it grows up.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 19, 2017
© Mark Brown