God of Carnage at the Russian Centre on Feb. 8,9, and 10 Wijith De Chickera liked the players a little, but the audience not so much It was a dark and stormy night (no really, it was – and soggy with it.). Jupiter Pluvius, that other god of carnage, was wreaking havoc on those braving [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

A rum thing, this


God of Carnage at the Russian Centre on Feb. 8,9, and 10

Wijith De Chickera liked the players a little, but the audience not so much

It was a dark and stormy night (no really, it was – and soggy with it.). Jupiter Pluvius, that other god of carnage, was wreaking havoc on those braving Colombo without a brolly. We trudged along a sludgy Guildford Crescent on Saturday night, hoping for more sophisticated savagery than sheets of ruthless rain and remorseless puddles. At the Russian Cultural Centre, for three successive nights, Yazmin Reza’s God of Carnage was making its own suave impression on the capital’s waterlogged theatregoers. There is no bound to what some people will do to keep themselves – and, in the case of the producers and the players, others – entertained. Thank le Dieu du Carnage for it.

The soiree starts off sanely enough. Four seemingly civilised (if a tad anal) adults are discussing the finer points of a draft joint statement on an incident in the park involving their children – one of whom, aged 11, has knocked out two front teeth of his playmate during playground fisticuffs.

By the end of the imbroglio, a little over an hour later, the decorum and dignity of the adults have disintegrated before our eyes, and more than a pair of juvenile incisors have been parted from their moorings. There are now four puerile adolescents mewling and puking (one of them, quite literally and spectacularly for theatre) in their spouses’ arms with post-traumatic ranting and raving to make Bedlam envious. There was metaphorical blood on the drawing-room floor. A regular PG-rated night at the theatre it wasn’t.

That this evidently tightly-knit highly-strung quartet was able to pull off a slick, fast-paced performance sans lapses, pauses, or spillages is to the credit of the chic string quartet itself and their astute handlers. The script is a labyrinthine maze of the thousand ills that mental health is heir to: littered with potential pitfalls, trapdoors, and landmines. It gives critical onlookers a perverse tingle of the spine to see players hotfoot across such a mercurial landscape on light toes. Maybe some of them do it for a living? A savvy director and a brace of producers who can guide them through the long, dark, cold evening of the soul deserve a burst of applause at the very least (hesitant, we were, to begin: it being a short outing by local standards). Brevity is the sole wit, dears, or something to that effect – as the Bard had it!

Maybe I’ll quibble a bit now. Every bouquet must have a brickbat or six to keep it honest. The script is sheer genius for ostensibly civilised societies like France, Britain, or the US which have had their own most prominent incisors knocked out (think 9/11), but still maintain a patina of a law-abiding democracy. Thus this descent into emotional mayhem at the hands of unashamed berserkers comes as a shock. We are not surprised that the beast lurks beneath a veneer of polite banter and strained etiquette – it takes very little to scratch the calm superficiality of Sri Lankan good behaviour and make us run amok… a trait we owe much to the new socio-political order. The shenanigans of this explosive interpersonal drama come as no surprise to us. We’ve been there and done that… My point is not so much the production values of the play, but the nous and rationale of its selection. Why do good theatre when you can do great? Of course, it is never too late or early enough (depending on your perspective: i.e. how old you are and how much you remember of our Golden Age of Dramaturgy) for smart theatre. And we will take a second helping of Carnage if it is as grotesquely urbane again then as it was this time…

I have a deeper grouse with Saturday night’s feverish sycophants. It takes very little to make you laugh, O Colombo! When the casus belli is the dismemberment of polite society by a blunt knife with the name of foul language, you have hardly an excuse except as a nervous tic in response to utter horror. Methinks some of us missed the point of the play, which was not so much comedy as black comedy. (Oui, I have watched Roman Polanski’s filmic interpretation, so I admit to being a tad prejudiced!)
While on the topic of odious comparisons, permit me this self-indulgence. Ashini Fernando as the arctic Veronique (ah?) put me in mind of a not-so-hyperborean Jodie Foster, from lofty disdain to volcanic loquaciousness. Chamat Arambewala had the same charming ambivalence (oh! now-you-like-him, now-you-don’t) as the movie version’s passive-aggressive John C. Reilly. Tehani Welgama, always ‘on’ and perhaps a tad too pointedly controlled, reminded me of a technically perfect young Srimalka Jayatunge (remember her, dears?). And Shanaka Amarasinghe reminded me of le dude himself, when he’s him (grim demeanour, grating mannerisms, gargoyle-like silences and all – you’re welcome, I meant that as a compliment of sorts).

I think the production (timed for 70 minutes, clocking in at under 65) outpaced itself on its second evening’s outing. But it missed an opportunity to interpret the stygian depths to which social intercourse can descend in two swigs of dark tea (try real rum next time, in saccharino veritas, for an edgier more realistic flavour?). Positioning itself as it did halfway between an inferno of knowing unkind nods at marital strife and tension, and a Hades of dark humour qua humanity’s plethora of interpersonal peccadilloes, the depth of the back stories which enriched characterisation saved it from sheer banality. Only thing was that hoary old trap of playing to the house (“hooray, it’s hilarious!”) which the cast and crew fell obligingly, intoxicatingly into; rather than an original take (“hell-o, now what can it all mean?”). So Carnage began as a clafouti with coffee affair but ended up serving the same old koththu with coke. Still, better this hotly buttered and roundly baked custard cake for dyspeptic thespians than the tepid leftovers they sometimes microwave and dish out to starving theatregoers in the dry seasons in-between.

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