The situation is so commonplace that everybody must have come across an incident like that. Two kids have a playground fight, and their parents come to battle swords drawn. Kids may bash each other and forget about it, but once adult tempers fray, there’s no saying where it will end.
Yasmina Reza’s play The God of Carnage (translated into English by Christopher Hampton) is a four-hander that became so popular that several productions were staged, and Roman Polanski turned it into a film. It is easy to see why the thin plot would attract actors like Ralph Fiennes, James Gandolfini, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, who are among the stars who have played ordinary suburban parents, whose veneer of civility is ripped off as the play (or film) progresses.
A still from the play, The God of Carnage, staged by by Q Theatre Productions
The Mumbai version, by Q Theatre Productions (under the Aadyam initiative), directed by Nadir Khan, could very well have taken place in an Indian living room. If the playwright had permitted an adaptation, there was a rich vein of local humour to be mined, because when we fight, there are layers of class, caste, status and background differences that emerge. When people are being polite, their prejudices are hidden, but once the masks are off, political correctness is the first casualty.
The play has four fine actors — Shernaz Patel and Sohrab Ardeshir play Veronica and Michael Novak, whose eleven-year-old son has been beaten up by the same-age boy of Alan and Annette Raleigh, played by Zafar Karachiwala and Anu Menon. They all meet in the Novaks’ home to sort out the problem in a civilized manner. The victim has lost two teeth, and his mother is trying to be very patient and understanding of the other boy’s violent impulse, but finds that the perpetrator’s parents are not suitably repentant.
Alan keeps breaking off the conversation to bark into the phone at one of his subordinates about how to deal with the issue of severe side-effects of a medicinal drug. Michael’s mother — whose calls keep interrupting the increasingly hysterical conversation — has been taking that pill and this causes the tension to exacerbate even more.
The play is meant not just to expose the characters as middle class hypocrites, it also uses the playground incident to have them discover hairline fractures in their marriages. A lot of heated words are exchanged during the course of the play’s 75-minute running time, but one can see that nothing much will change, and no epiphany will take place. The two couples may unsheathe their claws, and keep switching sides — at one point it becomes a battle of the sexes — but they don’t really want to disturb the status quo of their otherwise placid lives.
They make dramatic pronouncements like Michael’s “What I am and always have been is a f****** Neanderthal!” or Alan’s barb at the bleeding heart Victoria, “Women who are custodians of the world depress us,” like they were just discovering deep truths about themselves; the seemingly sweet Annette who triggers the play’s first crisis by throwing up all over Veronica’s precious books, snarls towards the end, “Our son did well to clout yours, and I wipe my ass with your Bill of Rights!” Veronica who cares as much about the trouble in Africa as she does about always doing the right thing, is provoked enough to attack her husband, and declares, “Courtesy is a waste of time, it weakens you and undermines you.”
Reza’s writing is witty, the retorts by the characters woundingly sharp, but the degeneration of the urbane drawing room chat into a melee was only to be expected — that is the point of the play, that ordinary people can have reserves of violence. (We see it in everyday instances of road rage and slanging matches in public transport over insignificant things, which are just blowing off the steam built up by totally unrelated matters.) But what takes place in the play, is not as scalding as the verbal savagery of the Edward Albee classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which has been held up as the obvious inspiration for this play.
The Raleighs keep heading towards the door to leave, and keep coming back to take the spat to the next level; it is as if both couples are looking for an excuse to say what the would not have dared to under normal circumstances. But having erupted thus, they will go back to their routine and eventually the hurt will subside. Nothing life-changing takes place in that bland room with its piles of coffee table books, old rum in the polished bar and tulips pretentiously displayed. The characters pathetically declare it to be the worst day of their lives, which only goes to show how dull they really are. (The worst thing the ‘Neanderthal’ has done is getting rid of his daughter’s pet hamster, because he couldn’t stand it; for this crime he is continuously flayed.)
What’s in it for the audience that titters away through the play and often guffaws loudly? Realisation of the fact that under similar circumstances they would behave exactly the same way, maybe minus the clever insults; that everybody looks for an excuse to behave badly once in a while, so that they can feel embarrassed and quickly wear their cloak of sophistication again.
Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator. She tweets at @deepagahlot