Review – God of Carnage with Ralph Fiennes at the Gielgud, London

Tuesday 18 March 2008

God of Carnage

It will come to no surprise to anyone that neither Whinger has sired any little Whingers.

Sadly, Phil is now almost certainly barren, so the patter of tiny cloven hooves is unlikely to be heard in Kentish Town.

Andrew claims to be a godfather; not the horse’s head in the bed variety (Andrew’s much too squeamish for that – remember he’s the one who wouldn’t go and see Equus as he feared seeing imaginary horses having their imaginary eyes poked out) and he frequently makes offers which people find very easy to refuse.

So could the Whingers possibly relate to God of Carnage, a tale of parenthood?

Warning: “Plot” spoiler ahead.

Well, not plot. Vomit. Vomit spoiler ahead.

But to begin at the beginning…

God of Carnage was always going to be a tricky one. Yasmina Reza (Art, Lifex3 and Something with a forgettable name that was on at the Wyndhams) writes plays that theatres love to put on and people enjoy watching but why this is so is rather beyond the Whingers. And she’s French.

Another characteristic of Reza productions is that the quality of the actors usually outweighs the play’s substance to an almost embarrassing degree.

So why bother? Well, because there’s a major star in it, of course: Ralph Fiennes. Plus it’s directed by the WEW’s directorial hero du mois, the uber-busy Matthew (Boeing, Boeing, Speed-the-Plow) Warchus. He also directed Lord Of The Rings – The Musical but anyone can make a mistake and the Whingers speak with some authority on the matter.

But then again, there are no offers available for this show, it’s not on the TKTS half price booth and the preview prices are reduced by a measly £2.50 which only is £1.00 less than the price of a God of Carnage programme.

In fact, such was the situation that the ever-stingy Whingers were reduced to emailing the show’s PR people – Peter Thompson Associates – to request free tickets but strangely no response was forthcoming, so possibly the Internet was broken that day.

Anyway, two tickets in the circle slips at £25 were the closest the Whingers could get to free. And actually (ticket tip) they are rather good for the price.

Anyway, God of Carnage is a 90 minute four hander (Fiennes plus Tamsin Greig, Janet McTeer and Ken Stott) about two middle class Parisian couples who meet to discuss how to handle the fact that the son of one has hit the son of the other, knocking out two of his teeth in the process.

But it’s not really about being a parent at all, it’s about relationships, and how selfish we all are only caring about ourselves. Alors, Mmlle Reza, the Whingers could certainly relate to that.

As the evening goes on allegiances shift, dirty laundry is aired and the audience laughs uproariously, presumably to the great annoyance of Mmlle Reza who comes across as rather precious and tiresome in The Independent:

She had hoped to be seen as a Gallic Pinter for whom silence is as important as words, as a female Pirandello or a twin sister to Beckett. Instead, she was compared with Alan Ayckbourn, and this didn’t please her.

In 1999, she told The Los Angeles Times, “I would like to see them laugh at the right moments.” A year later, she told another journalist, “Laughter is always a problem and is very dangerous. The way people laugh changes the way you see a play. A very profound play may seem very light. My plays have always been described as comedy but I think they’re tragedy. They are funny tragedy, but they are tragedy. Maybe it’s a new genre.”

Ooh, a new genre! Shall we call it the Theatre of Tiresomeness?

Because as the allegiances shift for the 45th time you get the feeling that they have become a formulaic device in their own right, devoid of any basis on psychological reality. The same when lawyer Fiennes breaks off from the arguments to answer his mobile phone for the 19th time; it all begins to flag somewhat although, we have to admit, the rest of the audience didn’t seem to tire of laughing at it.

In fact, the audience were so into it and presumably relating to Fiennes’ character so much that some apparently decided to switch their own mobiles back on. Three went off in the audience during the play (another spoiler coming) but when Grieg’s character eventually immerses her husband’s mobile in a vase of tulips the audience cheered.

Then it all really slows up and the lighting gets darker (much to the chagrin of Andrew who had taken to passing the time by reading the programme) and the mood gets more sombre. Yet when Greig’s character declares exhaustedly that “This is the worst day of my life” the audience falls about laughing. Maybe Mmlle should just get used to the fact that people laugh at her and write comedies. They might be quite good.

Christopher Hampton’s translation doesn’t help. The Whingers couldn’t quite put their claw-like fingers on it, but somehow it all sounded like it was translated from the French. An odd quality. Or perhaps a deliberate choice. Or perhaps he just used Babelfish.

The play was so French, in fact, that Phil even had his first genuine French-food-on-stage experience. Not only do they all chat about apple and pear clafoutis at length but also consume it. Poor Fiennes is forced to eat at least 3 pieces of it so no wonder he was starting to look a little less toned above the belt. He must be praying for a very short run, and hopefully he’ll get one.

There were some highlights. It was also the first time Phil’s seen a sim card on stage – excellent work from the props department here. Andrew liked the dramatic red set by designer Mark Thompson.

But the evening was entirely stolen by the highly convincing on-stage vomiting for which the Whingers would have happily paid £25. Which as it turns out they did. When it happened, the Whingers just turned to each other in disbelief, their jaws upon the floor. They have no idea how it was done, they just knew that they had witnessed something very special and magical which is unlikely to be equalled, let alone surpassed, in any theatrical production for many, many years.

Footnotes

1. When is a performance not a performance? The programme states “opening performance at the Gielgud Theatre 25th March 2008. So what had the Whingers just witnessed on the 17th March? Are previews not performances? Do these only count as rehearsals? If it’s not a performance who were these people surrounding the Whingers in the auditorium and what were these people doing on stage if not performing? Puzzling.

2. What constitutes a “sell out season”? The producers’ biog states that Equus “played for a sell-out season at the Gielgud”, Phil saw it early in the run but it clearly wasn’t sold out the night he went, unless a large party had booked the back of the stalls and all decided not to show up.

3. Special mention to the wonderfully named Traipsy Drake: what else could you have done but gone on to be a wardrobe mistress?

4. If you pop across the road for a quick drink after the show, you may – as the Whingers did – emerge just in time to see Mr Fiennes condescend to pop out and sign a few autographs – just a few, not one for everyone (notably not for Phil). A security man puts out a little fence to protect Mr Fiennes from the crowd of 10 people waiting for his autograph. Then Mr Fiennes pops back in again and the security guard takes the little fence back in. Then Ms Greig runs out of the theatre with her hand over her face a la West End Whingers, refusing to stop when called and runs into the pub over the road. Fascinating.

Ralph Fiennes signs a couple of autographs

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29 Responses to “Review – God of Carnage with Ralph Fiennes at the Gielgud, London”

  1. Martin Says:

    The vomit caught me entirely off guard, the sheer volume produced and the element of surprise was superb! My companion and I had a similar reaction to the Whingers, just stared at each other in disbelief, truly exceptional.

  2. Simone Says:

    Wow, both Fiennes and Greig are way too precious to sign for autographs now eh?


  3. Whingers, I’ll wait to read the entire review until after I’ve seen the show, so I appreciate the spoiler warning upfront!

    What struck me in eyeing your review was the graphic’s juxtaposition with your Whinger logo. If you did have kids, they clearly would have more artistry than that, don’t you think?!

  4. fred Says:

    enough of all this talk, talk, talk, carp carp carp (vomit, vomit..)

    time for the whingers to put their money where their mouth is (mouths are?) (no, not that glass of brutal red) and put a show up themselves..

    de jongh did it…. you’re falling behind..

  5. Simon Says:

    Oh God, yes. Reza was responsible for that diabolical reactionary three-hander, (F)Art. If memory serves, the vomiting all took place in the auditorium that time…

  6. Stephanie Wong Says:

    Hello. From America….California USA.

    I’m excited about the plays in Europe starring Ralph Fiennes. But obviously, you’re too far away for me to attend.

    I’d like to view the show by internet. Will you consider taping these shows and distributing the joy via internet for other theatre patrons across the globe?

    Ralph Fiennes is like a national treasure. An artist that ranks right up there with the likes of Picasso and Rembrandt. It would be a travesty not to capture his work on stage and to provide it for public viewing by art lovers across the globe.

    It’s so exciting to hear about the plays in London. Ralph Fiennes is my favorite actor. It would be so romantic to be able to participate in these theatre productions via the internet, in America.

    Please consider my request. There are a lot of Ralph Fiennes fans in America. And, don’t forget, 200 years ago, America and Britain were intertwined.

    God Bless.

    Stephanie Wong

    mediatorwong@aol.com

  7. JA Says:

    Takes all sorts doesn’t it?!

  8. fred Says:

    if you liked the vomiting in gods of carnage you’ll jut love days of significance..

  9. Ct Says:

    I really enjoyed God of Carnage, I thought that the cast where outstanding especially Janet Mcteer. Four actors performing a highly energised piece for solid hour and a half without an interval… must be exhuasting!! I dont blame them for wanting to rush home …or have a relaxing drink!!!

  10. Mark Shenton Says:

    yep, I’ll second Fred’s recommendation on DAYS OF SIGNIFANCE for the vomit factor…. truly exceptional…. and VERY realistic…. and also utterly appropriate! Not since Antony Sher threw up onstage in Mike Leigh’s GOOSEPIMPLES (first at Hampstead, then at the Garrick) has there been theatrical vomiting quite as realistic. Of course, I am yet to see GOD OF CARNAGE — I will be at the press night tomorrow (Tuesday) — but I am now looking forward to this even more….

  11. Londongal Says:

    God of Carnage is tedious …even by the standards of Art. The cast was indeed stellar, but Good lord again I felt like shouting at the stage “I get it, can we stop now?” after 60 minutes without having to sit through another 30. I suspect people will love it for the same reason (oft quoted) that they loved “Art”….it was short, you could go see it, go to dinner and still get the last train home to the suburbs. Don’t waste your money.

  12. Nik Says:

    I have to agree that I found this play tedious and not at all funny. Perhaps I needed to be closer to the stage to watch the boredom on the actors faces to laugh.
    However, the cast are totally fantastic. Perhaps they could just talk about their respective careers, or read the phone book, and we’d have a result.

  13. Steven Says:

    Any one at the premiere care to tell us about the power out???

  14. TimW Says:

    The thing that bothered me was that I can think of three or four French comedies that I’ve seen in the past few years that follow a disturbingly similar plotline.
    Basically it involves a tense situation between two or more bourgeois characters which is partially resolved by an outbreak of childish violence and destruction of property (preferably in an ultra-chic French apartment) about two thirds of the way through.

  15. Blue Frog Says:

    I seem to remember there was a pretty impressive bout of on-stage projectile vomiting in And Then There Were None in the West End a couple of years ago.

    I haven’t seen God of Carnage so I don’t know how it compares…


  16. You’re right, Blue Frog! Had forgotten all about that. It wasn’t very well done, I seem to remember, apart from the fact that it spilled over onto the people in the front row of the stalls.

  17. Chris Says:

    Traipsy Drake is a legend.

  18. fold Says:

    Agree entirely with Nik. I wasn’t quite sure why so many people seemed to be in raptures of mirth around me. They were laughing their heads off at the most commonplace observations. It wasn’t exactly Moliere or Stoppard. Maybe there’s a ratio between determination to laugh and ticket price?

    I thought the English audience were enjoying it for its farce and its slapstick – some of which was reasonably well done.
    All the French “significance” was either flying over their heads or being told to sit in the corner and mind its manners by the almost exclusively white and well heeled audience.

    Seemed pretty obvious to me a lot of this was allegorical stuff about the “clash of civilisations” by this French writer of presumably Muslim background. The reference to the kid having “two front teeth” knocked out seemed a pretty direct reference to the two Twin Towers. The Michel figure (cynical and second rate, but wallowing in drink and second rateness) was I think a dig at Michel Houllebeq (spelling?) author of Atomised which scandalised French literary circles. He’s famed for his hatred of his mother and of Muslims and Arabs. All the telephone business with the mother was a skit on his relationship with his mother.

    The businessman (Fiennes) character was probably meant to represent the spirit of American capitalism, while his wife represented the good side of Western civilisation – commitment to democracy etc.

    The acting was generally solid, although Fiennes’ erstwhile Reginald Perrin impression made one long for Leonard Rossiter’s comic genius on stage (now he really would have made it all so much more credible, by introducing that surburban mania into the drama).

  19. AJK Says:

    It’s our own fault – Art was such a long time ago we have forgotten our disappointment plus there is another stellar cast on show so we ended up going. The plays have much in common – both are extremely happy with themselves yet are not even up to the drunken conversation of university philosophy students after their first lecture.

    The actors certainly do act their hearts out if only they had anything worthwhile to work with while some of the lines are laugh out loud funny albeit not in the way Ms Reza probably wanted them to be. If you have to articulate the profundities you are supposedly describing through drama you have failed from the start. They might as well have turned to the audience to “explain” the complexities (HA!). Listening to her quoted above, you get the feeling she would rather her plays were performed perhaps before the annual meetings of the Royal Society or the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres the only problem being that the gentlefolk of these institutions would dismiss her work instantly as being trivial and banal. Which they undoubtedly are.

    And am I really the only person to wonder why Fiennes decided to model his performance on Rigsby from Rising Damp? Every expression and mannerism is uncannily like that of the sorely missed titan of British comedy which means that although well-played, you couldn’t escape the I’ve-seen-it-all-before-but-better-with-Miss-Jones feeling when he was doing his thing.

    Plus points were the performances if you could separate them from the play – Tamsin Greig’s genuine delight and horror at having dumped Alain’s mobile (“mobile” they call it even in France they must have blackberrys by now) in the flower vase; Fiennes playing the first well-timed interruption of said mobile; Janet McTeer’s restraint; it was a fabulous cast in search of a decent play.

    Mz Reza needs to get over herself, realise that her aspirations are not matched by her ability and try writing a straigtforward comedy, she certainly has an ear for dialogue and timing; plus who knows, perhaps the odd profundity would creep in also.

  20. AJK Says:

    I wrote “am I really the only person to wonder why Fiennes decided to model his performance on Rigsby from Rising Damp?”

    sorry was having a “me” moment as the review immediately preceding mine noted the very same thing..

  21. fold Says:

    No problem AJK. “The truth has no copyright.”

    Old Rossiter would undoubtedly have taken the performance to a whole new level, making a virtue of the weak logic and plotting of the drama.

    Others from the past one might imagine pulling it off:

    Tony Hancock
    Warren Mitchell (not as Alf Garnett! – thinking more of his Willy Lomax)

    Anyway, I’ve had worse nights at the theatre so mustn’t grumble!

  22. Jenny Says:

    Saw this play last night admittedly after day spent travelling from Switzerland, but WHAT WERE THEY ALL LAUGHING AT? Why do actors have to do this gurning, declaiming, shouting, spitting, (that’s apart from the vomiting of course) and pacing about for no good reason? Found it unutterably tedious, 90 minutes was a good 40 mins too long.

  23. fold Says:

    Fold –

    You can tell I don’t go to the Theatre that much as I am back here to talk about this one play! But am heartened by the general scepticism shown towards it. Glad to know it wasn’t just me wondering what the audience hysterics was all about.

    I agree it was pretty tedious Jenny. I see what you mean about the acting – but I think that had they been less energetic, the whole thing would have died in the first five minutes. I think the spirited acting did at least give the impression that something interesting, clever and revelatory was about to happen any moment now…except it never did.

  24. Zsuzsanna Says:

    I saw GOC too. Now I realize that ‘Phil and Andrew’ dislike Ralph Fiennes. I’m sure, their biased critic aims to hurt him . GOC isn’t bad but isn’t really a good drama. The issue was better written in ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ (by the way: Ralph Fiennes could play a wonderful George – it was written for him).The actors were all excellent. One can envy RF being an international star but he’s without allures . He’s a humble artist and was the equal member of the cast. He proved to have humour. (he proved it in other productions too e.g. Wallace and Gromit) . So I beg your pardon for Sophocles and Ralph Fiennes, because there are others who think his performance was thrilling. If you think that Oedipus is a joke with cats andsoon, Sophocles has no possibility to deny it.

  25. Durandel Says:

    Fold said : “this French writer of presumably Muslim background”.

    No.
    Reza is not an arabic name, it’s a persian name from Iran. Iran isn’t an arabic country, it’s a persian country (remember Reza Palahvi).
    Only her first name “Yasmina” could let believe she has muslim origins. But she has not. She has jewish origin from both sides of her family.
    Her father is an half-russian half-Iranian ingeneer. Her mother is an Hungarian violonist came in France to escape from communism.
    Her partner is Didier Martiny and their children are named Alta and Nathan.

  26. valentin Says:

    I’ve just come home seeing this “best play” on Broadway. And i just need to see that i’m not alone thinking that it is a most contrived, and sophomoric at that, play I’ve seen in a long time.

  27. tania Says:

    What a waste of money and time. I am a school teacher who enjoyed a 14 year career as a theatre performer. I wasted money, i definitely cannot afford, on seeing this underdeveloped, underwritten piece of boring drivel. I WANT A REFUND!!!!!

  28. Katrina Says:

    I am an Australian who has recently returned from a third wonderful visit to NYC, with the highlight being my visits to Broadway shows.

    Sadly, God of Carnage was a complete and utter disappointment.
    Particularly as I try and research the best shows in the limited time I have.

    How this show received the 2009 Tony Award for best play is beyond me?

    This farcical scenario degenerated into a tantrum by a group of two year olds.
    Simply not enjoyable on any level.
    What a waste of money and I couldn’t help but think as the big name cast accepted the applause at the end, they almost looked apologetic!

  29. Sam Says:

    Is the reason there is no interval in this play due to the theatre being empty in the second half????


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