The comedy of Carnage

God of Carnage (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

August 28 – September 12

‘It’s all in the eyes’, we realise in take of covid-safe plan masked-up selfies pre-show at Ad Astra’s “God of Carnage”. It’s an adage that applies on stage too, sans masks, as characters go from the side-eye subtlety to eye-roll exaggeration of relationship deterioration. The two couples whose marriages crumble before the audience’s eyes have convened to politely discuss, over civil coffee and clafoutis, a violent playground fight between their sons (one boy has knocked out the other’s front teeth), but instead end up descending into playground bullying themselves.

Yasmina Reza’s critically acclaimed social satire is clearly of the middle class with early scenes seeing the agreeable enough couples gently sizing each other up, before all attempts at civility are erased. The ingredients for such an outcome are evident from early on as the audience observes the social justice warrior and writer Veronica’s uptight passive aggression and semantic criticisms about if 11-year-old Freddie was ‘armed’ in the attack that has ‘disfigured’ her 11-year-old son Henry. What makes the journey from there so fulfilling is its mix of moods and ever-shifting alliances. Yes, the characters are one-dimensional (though they all clearly have flaws), however, this somehow seems appropriate for a play in which characters are essentially not interested in anything but themselves. That the single-act drama takes place in the confines of Veronica and husband Michael’s tastefully decorated living room is also fitting for a story that descends from the strained conversation of visiting strangers Elaine and Annette into a sparring match that nobody anticipated.

Things crackle along quickly from initial polite discussion of art thanks the work’s witty writing. The shortest, simplest of lines are often hilarious in their venomous delivery as the veneer lifts and conversation becomes less about the boys and more about each couple’s issues. And director Jacqueline Kerr’s vision shines in the hands of the quartet of accomplished players, allowing the black humour to flash through. Not only does she keep the performers moving around the intimate space in a non-repetitive way, but physical reactions to the situation fill the stage with grand gestures and nuanced reactions alike.

As arrogant, high-powered lawyer Elaine (currently representing a questionable pharmaceutical company), Deirdre Grace, in particular, is a master of small moments, even while occupied on her never-far-away mobile phone. These are often only in reaction to the words and actions of others, and evident especially as things become more frantic when she flirts with everyone on stage, except her wife (a new found dynamism thanks to the production’s change from the originally written two heterosexual couples to a lesbian one).

As Veronica, Helen Ekundayo is a smiling hostess, increasingly hostile as she attempts to prosecute her guests towards accountability for the violence enacted upon her son and Sandra Harman projects visiting Annette’s anxious guilt from the play’s opening moments, including in her frequent attempts to leave. Tom Coyle is terrific as the initially amiable Michael, especially as his sentiment changes to one characterised by snide, uncooth comments.

Even though the play was written more than a decade ago in another country, “God of Carnage stands strong as a still-relevant piece of dark comedy. In this instance, a sprinkling of added pop culture updates and story relocation to Brisbane work well to enhance engagement. Still, most of the appeal comes from the way alliances keep shifting as arguments become more irrational, especially in light of later rum-induced accusations that see Veronica’s initially-bland husband spring into revel of his Neanderthal spirit. There is a voyeuristic pleasure in watching the verbal battle which unfolds and as the quartet’s hypocritical pseudo-intellectual arguments descend into carnage, little is left standing; even the stage is turned on end, as its’ every man or woman for themselves philosophy spills forth. Indeed, when violence erupts there is a physical comedy to it, which is what makes it such a crowd pleaser of a play, never to be missed.

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