Theatre reviews: God of Carnage, Theatre Royal, Glasgow | Heroine, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

OFF HAND, it’s difficult to think of a play that Glasgow needed to see less – in this week of all weeks – than French playwright Yasmina Reza’s super-smart deconstruction of middle-class claims to civilisation and liberal values.

Nigel Lindsay and Elizabeth McGovern in God of Carnage
Nigel Lindsay and Elizabeth McGovern in God of Carnage

God of Carnage, Theatre Royal, Glasgow *** | Heroine, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

First seen in London in 2006, God Of Carnage received a memorably brutal production three years ago at the Tron, which ended with its excellent four-strong Scottish cast knocking the lights out of each other in a children’s ball-pool; and that final scene brilliantly said it all about Reza’s whip-smart reactionary drama, which – at a time when people across the world need to defend liberal values as never before – amuses itself, and a certain kind of privileged audience, by suggesting that such values are never more than skin deep.

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So enter our four characters, stalwart representatives of the Parisian bourgeoisie. The scene is the living room of Veronica and Michael, whose 11-year-old son has just been hit with a stick in the local park by a classmate, losing two teeth in the confrontation. Alan and Annette, the parents of the other boy, have come round to try to sort things out; but primitive emotions soon begin to rage around the chic white living room, as they spectacularly fail to reach agreement even on how to describe what has happened.

Nor is the raging parental dispute between the two couples the only fault-line to emerge. Alan is revealed as a work-obsessed corporate lawyer without principles or ethics, whose attitudes disgust and enrage his wife, who in turn becomes so agitated that she starts to projectile-vomit all over the furniture. Meanwhile, it emerges that Michael cannot stand Veronica’s liberal attitudes to everything from war to gender, and would rather spend the evening getting drunk with Alan and making ludicrously sexist remarks about women.

So far, so neatly amusing, in a Radio 4 comedy kind of way; and the four-strong company – featuring Elizabeth McGovern of Downton fame as Veronica, Nigel Lindsay as Michael, Simon Paisley Day as Alan and Samantha Spiro as Annette – certainly deliver Reza’s 85 minutes of mayhem with memorable commitment and flair. In the end, though, Lindsay Posner’s UK touring production just lacks the savagery, and the visual imagination, that might turn this clever play into something more than a smug drawing-room drama about the unavoidable limitations of humanity; staged at the very moment when we need to believe in our capacity to do better than this, or face a grim future, and a very short one.

Mary Jane Wells’s Heroine, by contrast – first seen in Edinburgh in 2017, and playing briefly at the Traverse before its US premier later this month – is an acclaimed one-woman show that could hardly strike a more different tone, in that it takes seriously the consequences of lawlessness and brutalism, for those who becomes its victims. Inspired by the true story of Danna Davis, a US soldier who served in the Iraq war, Wells’s fine play and unforgettable performance tell of a gay woman who, after difficult teenage years, was beginning to find confidence and success in the US army when – while based in Germany in 2002 – she was subjected to a brutal premeditated rape by three men from her own unit.

Danna found consolation in a new relationship with a colleague; but following her lover’s death in combat in Iraq, she began to suffer from fits of rage and grief so great that she ended up out of the army, and on a long and lonely road to oblivion or recovery. There’s nothing simple or conclusive about the path she travels; but over 70 minutes, backed by magnificent soundscape and lighting by Matt Padden and George Tarbuck, Wells makes us feel and understand the both the sheer horror of Danna’s experience, and the extraordinary reserves of resilience, humour and spiritual openness than enable her to begin to heal, and live on. Heroine comes surrounded, as it should, with the whole panoply of support services that now exist for women subjected to such horrors; but whether Danna’s story reflects aspects of your own life or not, it’s worth making the effort to experience this rich and life-affirming piece of solo theatre, at its final Traverse performance tonight.

Joyce McMillan

Both shows run until 1 February