The cast on a photoshoot at the Cherry Hinton Chalk PitsJohannes Hjorth

God of Carnage is a play I’ve never heard of, which surprises Mathieu Delaveau, the Director, because apparently Yasmina Reza is the most commonly-staged French playwright outside of France. God of Carnage, he tells me, is typical of her dramatic style: it contains very few characters, is based all in one set, it’s fairly short, and it features bourgeois middle class couples. “The children of the couples have got into a fight,” he says, “and the parents meet up to settle the argument.” Everything escalates from there.

I ask: why do you like it? What’s the point in staging it? “I think it’s extremely funny,” he says. “Above all it’s a very entertaining play. I’ve done shows before that are quite serious, quite dark and existential, but I’ve realised that really when I go to the theatre I just want to be entertained. I think that to really make people laugh is a great art. And this play is quick, witty and funny.”

Miguel Borges, one of the male leads, is also here, and I want to hear a bit about his character. “Alan is a lawyer in his forties,” he tells me. “He’s a bit of a cynic – he thinks he has life figured out and that you can protect yourself by making sure that you hurt others first. But I think one of the interesting things for Alan is that as the play progresses you get the feeling that his belief really drags him down and makes him vulnerable in a different way. He ends just as changed as everybody else, even though he starts out thinking that he won’t be.”

How has that been to act, to get into? “There’s an element of painfulness to it,” he says. “Originally I auditioned for the other male lead and Mathieu saw me as more of an Alan, but I think his personality definitely clashes with mine.” So it hasn’t been easy? “No,” he replies, “but it’s been interesting because I get to explore this completely different headspace. I like to think I’m a bit more empathetic than he is but that makes it much more interesting to explore the character.”

Mathieu has some more thoughts on the acting of the text. “There are four actors,” he says. “Two couples, and they all have really good chemistry, which was surprising. It was the first real challenge, trying to get the chemistry right, because that’s pretty much what the play is about – it’s only about the actors and the acting. It’s one setting, one hour, one evening, there aren’t even scenes or acts or whatever.”

The way they’re describing it is making me think of Ibsen – that may just be because I’m stuck in Tragedy revision at the moment, but I’ve got to pursue this line of thought. Do Miguel or Mathieu think the play could be described as a modern tragedy? Mathieu explains “I think at the end of the play the characters have realised how vague and superficial their lives are – how they’re made of nothing, made of air. It is about how they realise that their lives are based on convention and their happy, stable marriages are an illusion. But I wouldn’t call it tragic. It’s just too funny, and I think you make fun of the characters more than you pity them.”

Miguel agrees. “I think I do sympathise with the characters,” he says, “in the sense that everybody has had terrible days that have been the result of very frustrating social interactions. So yeah, I think it’s a tragedy for the characters, but for anyone watching it, it can be intense but it’s mostly quite funny.”

It sounds like they’re both familiar with the play and have really thought about what the characters are like. But what have they done that’s innovative, that has changed the meaning of the text? Mathieu responds, “Our main major change was to set it in London instead of Paris, and that happened with subtle changes. To me, as a foreigner, I see there’s a side of Cambridge that’s very much about convention and following the rules, and I think that really fits with the play which is definitely about exploring conventions and attitudes towards things like violence. So relocating it in England really made sense because it feels like it fits in with the British way of interacting – being a bit 'stiff upper lip', I suppose, a bit controlled. I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing the English!” he laughs. “But there is a corresponding Oxbridge attitude so I think it resonates. The formal dinners and that sort of thing, when you have to behave well.

“I also think,” he continues, “that often the play is done in a very non-naturalistic way, the characters divorced from a sense of reality and just being quite symbolic, or caricatures. Lots of directors have gone for a sort of circus approach, but I’ve tried to make the audience believe in the characters, to make them really real people, because I think that’s so important for there to be any emotional response. We’ve definitely tried to build some background for the characters, build up a biography, work out where their values came from to bring some depth to their conversation.”

Miguel has his own thoughts on how acting out the text has helped them to reinterpret it. “As we’re rehearsing,” he says, “different moments have emerged as a result of the interplay between our own personalities and the personalities that we take on as the characters, so we’ve gone back and codified them into the text. And it’s really the result of our own dynamics flowing through these characters, and I think it brings a great amount to our own interpretation.”

When an actor says something like that, it makes me think they know what they’re doing. I’m looking forward to seeing this one.

God of Carnage runs from Tuesday 10th to Saturday 14th May 2016, at 9.30pm, in the Corpus Playroom.

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