As God of Carnage by French dramatist Yasmina Reza heads to Glasgow on its UK tour, Mark Brown considers the work of the critically acclaimed satirist

Yasmina Reza is one of the most critically and commercially successful dramatists of the modern age. Art, her 1994 satire on abstract painting and the (inevitably) middle-class people who like it, won her three of the world’s most coveted theatre prizes – a Moliere award in Paris, an Olivier in London, and a Tony in New York (the first time a non-English language drama had won Best Play at the American awards).

The play, which is rarely, if ever, off the London stage (it is currently being presented at the Old Vic, starring Tim Key, Paul Ritter and Rufus Sewell) is considered by many to be a hilarious takedown of petty bourgeois artistic pretentions. It features three well-heeled, metropolitan friends (Serge, Marc and Yvan) who are forced to debate the quality, nature and value of painting when Serge purchases a white canvas for an astronomical sum of money.

In one of his final reviews before retiring as theatre critic of The Guardian, my colleague Michael Billington (in a notice for the current Old Vic production) wrote that he “leans” toward the view that Reza’s drama is “a modern classic”. Its clutch of awards and stack of adulatory reviews indicates that he is far from alone in that opinion.

Art led some critics to the conclusion that France, a nation for which satire and class warfare are second nature, had found a successor to Moliere and Marivaux. Reza’s 2006 play God of Carnage (which comes to Glasgow’s Theatre Royal for a short residency on January 27) enhanced significantly the playwright’s reputation for skewering the seemingly civilised middle class.

As Glasgow audiences for the touring production by the Theatre Royal, Bath (which stars Elizabeth McGovern of Downton Abbey fame) will discover, the drama brings together two sets of middle-class parents to discuss a contretemps between their sons, which has led to one child suffering a moderately worrying injury. As in other plays of petty bourgeois manners, such as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, alcohol plays a significant role in the action. Masks of civility begin to slip and, as the title of Reza’s piece suggests, carnage ensues.

Some Scottish theatre lovers might remember the drama from the Tron Theatre, Glasgow’s (for my money, misfiring) production back in 2017. More people, one suspects, will know it from Roman Polanski’s film version, simply entitled Carnage, in 2011, which starred Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz.

The inspiration for the play came, Reza told The Guardian in 2012, from “a little incident” involving a friend of her 13-year-old son. “His friend was in a fight with another friend; they exchanged blows and my son's friend had his tooth broken.

“A few days later, I met the mother of this boy in the street. I asked her how her son was, if he was better… and she said, 'Can you imagine? The parents [of the other boy in the fight] didn't even call me!'"

From there, Reza imagined a meeting between the parents of the two boys in which the intended, genteel resolution of the grievance is knocked massively off course by booze-fuelled parental loyalties and burgeoning personal resentments. There is in this, as in the friendship-straining arguments in Art, a strong echo of the morality – a calling out of the hypocrisy of “respectable” society – of France’s master satirist Moliere.

Reza, who is the daughter of Jewish refugees (her father, a Persian-Jewish engineer, born in Russia, was held in the Drancy internment camp during the Second World War), is non-committal on the question of whether or not she is a theatrical “moralist”. What is certain is that she raised more than a few eyebrows with her bald statement that she “had no scruples” about working with Polanski, despite his being a fugitive from justice in the United States, where he has, since 1978, been wanted on charges related to the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl.

Her association with Polanski aside, is Reza the towering dramatist that many critics suggest she is? I’m afraid to say that, awards and critical acclaim notwithstanding, I think not.

Unlike Billington, I lean, and quite heavily, towards the contrary view that Art, for example, is, in the words of the respected former Guardian critic, “a modish crowdpleaser”. It’s often noted that Reza’s plays tend to be relatively short (God of Carnage comes in at 90 minutes, for instance), set in just one room and populated by no more than four characters.

This might be considered a clever, theatrical economy. The opposite assessment, however, is that it is typical of a populist, commercial imperative at work in Reza’s dramas, the satire of which is too neat, too predictable and, consequently, lacking the savage irony of real masters such as Albee, Pinter and, indeed, Moliere.

God of Carnage plays the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, January 27 to February 1: