Translated from its original French by Christopher Hampton, the story takes place over one evening in which two upper-middle-class couples come together to discuss a fight their sons had at school. As the alcohol flows and good intentions falter, we learn that these families have bigger problems than a playground spat.
“It starts in a very polite, mild, lovely way,” says director Miles Potter. “It could be a nice afternoon tea party. By the end it’s pretty much X-rated. Everything gets dragged in — economics, male-female relationships, racism. It all gets dragged out and pummelled.”
For the English version, the setting has been moved from a suburb of Paris to Brooklyn, but Potter believes the play retains Reza’s signature archness. “Over the years she has developed a style that is both thought-provoking and vastly entertaining,” he says. “I think that’s the real trick for a playwright. We don’t particularly want to be lectured — we want to be entertained. And if we walk out thinking we’ve had an idea, that’s even better.”
Speaking over the phone from Winnipeg, where the production has been running at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Potter says his job as director is to look beyond the plot and draw out the playwright’s intended meaning. He believes that at the heart of God of Carnage sits a warning — “Don’t become these people.”
“These are not bad people in their hearts,” he says. “What they’ve done is accept what our society tells them is important: Don’t let anybody put one over on you. Make sure you get what’s yours. Don’t get cheated. Defend your family at all costs.”
What’s missing is a sense of empathy, a lack that Potter sees as a metaphor that reaches beyond the private sphere and into politics.
“No one listens to anyone else,” he says. “All they’re doing is preparing their next answer. That’s what you see in public discourse, (in debates. All they’re doing is waiting for you to finish so they can tell you what their ideology is because yours is clearly wrong.”
To help the audience see into the play’s nightmarish core, Potter asked set designer Gillian Gallow for something “quite radical.”
“You can’t really sit there and say, ‘I don’t like these people — why are we watching them?’” he says.
“There must be something else going on here because that floor is tilted. That wall is a funny shape.”
The final key was casting. Potter needed to find actors who could keep the audience’s sympathy through the darker bits. He decided to go with a few actors he had worked with before, including Vickie Papavs, who played Nurse Ratched in his recent production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“I really wanted to make sure that I had actors that were appealing and relatively warm personalities, because otherwise they would be difficult to spend an evening with,” he says.
“I want you to be able to like them from the get-go. You shouldn’t hate them at all. You should feel sorry for them. You should feel empathy.”
But just because you care for the characters doesn’t mean you should agree with them. “If you walk out going, ‘That lawyer, I like his opinion,’ we’re in trouble,” says Potter. “They’re not villains. They’re just us and we have to be careful.”
This will be the first production at the Playhouse theatre since the Vancouver Playhouse Company’s demise earlier this month.
God of Carnage was scheduled to be the final play of the 2012 season and after some lengthy negotiations, it is appearing as scheduled as a co-production between Vancouver Civic Theatres and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Although he regrets the circumstances, director Miles Potter is glad that Vancouver theatregoers will still be able to experience Reza’s scathing critique of upper-middle-class morality. “It’s not going to restore the Playhouse [Theatre Company] but at least it’s finishing it the way we had hoped,” he says.