God of Carnage
Never So Good
Nothing terribly original about Yasmina Reza’s new play, God of Carnage, which examines the idea that civilised behaviour is a decorative curtain that masks our true savagery. Two nice smug bourgeois couples, while attempting to patch up a row between their sons, descend into an inferno of violence and rage. But the show, not least on account of the script, is an absolute triumph. The back story is contrived with great artistry so that small plot details reappear with minor changes that give them massive new force. And Reza draws her characters very deftly and sympathetically. But her orchestration of relationships is, if I’m being fussy and I usually am, a bit limited. She works the two couples in predictable directions, slowly pushing each to the limit of explosive antagonism and, after the bust-up, making both partners form an unexpected bond with a member of the other pair. These new alliances are again driven to a violent fracture whereupon two fresh bonds are formed. And so on. Towards the end I had the suspicion that with a little ingenuity Reza could have spun the play out for two more hours. Never mind, this is a brilliantly entertaining piece of bear-pit comedy, reminiscent of Mike Leigh at his best. Tamsin Greig, adorable in anything she plays, has the least meaty role but makes the best of it. The absolute star is Ralph Fiennes playing an icy, perfectionist lawyer fighting to save a drug firm from the patients it has poisoned. Reza’s best-known play, Art, ran for years in the West End. No reason why this shouldn’t too. But see it sooner rather than later because Fiennes’s account of comic cruelty is sensational.
No such luck at the Lyttelton. Howard Brenton’s play about Harold Macmillan stars Jeremy Irons, who gives his standard performance, suave, remote, inscrutable. He gets none of Macmillan’s chuckling, debonair irony but plays him like a pointlessly handsome Latin master bumbling his way through five decades of upheaval. Simple things are wrong. Costume and make-up. Instead of Macmillan’s trademark tweeds he wears black tie throughout and his hair is so sleekly coiffed that he looks like Omar Sharif collecting an Oscar. Supermac was more complex than this, a slippery, witty, highly sophisticated political operator with a taste for carefully polished aphorisms. The real problem is that the play lacks any purpose or theme; it just assembles the Top Twenty Most Over-exposed Moments of the 20th Century and pegs them out in a line. Look, that’s Chamberlain waving Hitler’s signature. Oh, there’s Churchill entering Downing Street. Here comes Anthony Eden so Suez’ll go belly-up any moment. Brenton has no insights to offer, no attitude towards his material except perhaps a fascinated distaste for Etonians. His sole innovation is to portray Macmillan as a trainee basket case haunted by his younger self, a guilt-ridden ghost in Great War uniform, who lingers at the side of the stage glaring balefully at the action and shouting, ‘He f**ked your wife’ whenever Bob Boothby comes on. How silly.
Ian McNeice does an enjoyable Bunterish turn as Churchill but, like Macmillan, he’s barely even a caricature — just a big outline with nothing inside. The script’s anachronisms and blunders are embarrassing to begin with (Eden opening the door for a butler), and then irksome. ‘Eisenhower’s on the hotline,’ announces a Downing Street aide. Well, any twit knows the hotline wasn’t established until Kennedy’s presidency and it linked Washington and Moscow, not Washington and London. Someone with O-level history should have had a skim through the text. Brenton has real problems making his females likeable. Macmillan’s mother is drawn as a hectoring snob and his wife Dorothy is simply illegible. One minute she’s boasting to Macmillan of her adultery, the next she’s trying to seduce him. Later she claims to adore him. Even the beautiful Anna Chancellor can’t paper over the mortal cracks in the characterisation. A fine idea for a play, disappointingly executed.
Into the Hoods is an unexpected joy. Superbly choreographed and with a cast of world-class acrobats, the show riffles through virtually the entire back-catalogue of dance music celebrating the great (Chaka Khan, NWA) and mocking the worthless (MC Hammer). The troupe’s finest talent is Rowen Hawkins, who can hop on one hand, and there’s an extremely witty performance from Christian ‘Bounce’ Alozie playing an ugly sister in a hot pink skirt. Best of all are the child performers. Yasmin Chevannes, as Fairy Gee, has an instinctive exuberance that recalls the careless grace of Michael Jackson before his ‘reverse suntan’ phase. A treat.