I suspect that the massive, worldwide success of Le Dieu du carnage, French playwright Yasmina Reza’s comedy of poor manners, comes down to a single, very satisfying moment near the middle of it.
It involves the onstage destruction of a cellphone belonging to the arrogant Alain, who keeps answering it and ignoring the real, live humans around him.
His comeuppance is hilarious, but it’s also an emotional release for theatregoers who for more than a decade have regularly had to deal with live performances compromised by careless owners of mobile devices. However, the brilliant thing about the scene is that it manages to implicate us in the childishness of the characters; cheering silently, we can no longer feel superior to them.
Le Dieu du carnage – translated into English and a Broadway hit called God of Carnage by Christopher Hampton – concerns two sets of middle-class parents who meet in an attempt to find a civilized resolution to a conflict that began when one of their 11-year-old sons was injured by the other in a local park. They don’t succeed, of course.
With its depiction of overprotective mothers and fathers using their children to advance their ideologies, Reza’s play – her biggest hit since 1995’s Art – has really tapped into the zeitgeist.
God of Carnage is all over English Canada this season. Montreal’s Centaur Theatre and Saskatoon’s Persephone Theatre open productions over the next couple of weeks. Fiona Reid is starring in the play at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre in March, while Miles Potter will direct it at the Vancouver Playhouse and Manitoba Theatre Centre later in the spring.
Then, of course, Roman Polanski’s film adaptation – simply titled Carnage – is coming out in December, aiming for Oscars.
As of yet, Torontonians can only catch the stage version Le Dieu du carnage in its original language at the Théâtre Français de Toronto. This is a mixed blessing for the unilingual. There are projected English surtitles (translated by Gunta Dreifelds) so anglophones can follow along, but they are hardly ideal for a fast-paced farce where so much is in the timing and the delivery.
In Diana Leblanc’s production, designed by Glen Charles Landry, the two pairs of parents begin their discussion on red couches that seem to be selected to match their self-image.
Véronique (Colombe Demers), an art historian, and Michel (Olivier L’Écuyer), her hardware store-owning husband, lounge on an artfully designed sofa with a low back and no arms, while the less free-spirited lawyers Alain (Christian Laurin) and Annette (Tara Nicodemo) sit stick-straight on a slick, leather couch opposite.
After initial politeness and clafouti, the dominant partners in each couple roll up their sleeves and duke it out. Véronique, who is writing a book on Darfur, hawkishly espouses the values of peace and reconciliation, inadvertently demonstrating the limitations of humanitarian intervention. Alain, meanwhile speechifies about what he calls the “god of carnage” – essentially, what he is saying is that boys have fought in parks since the beginning of time, and it used to be a moment of character-building, not a crisis.
Giving the wilder performances, the women outshine the men in this production. Demers, a bilingual performer who has previously worked at Stratford and Soulpepper, is particularly wonderful as the passive-aggressive Véronique, who seems to hides manic depression behind perfect bangs and a cultured French persona.
Leblanc’s production is brisk and entertaining and passes in a flash. Her only misstep is adding a silent, opening scene that too quickly puts our sympathies in one corner. Despite the smug complacency of its message – humans are all horrible – it’s not difficult to see the appeal of Reza’s smash success.
Le Dieu du carnage runs until Nov. 5 (in French with English surtitles).
Le Dieu du carnage
- Written by Yasmina Reza
- Directed by Diana Leblanc
- Starring Colombe Demers, Tara Nicodemo
- At the Théâtre Français de Toronto