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[God of Hell review]


FT, 28 October 2005

By Alastair Macaulay

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The best plays of Sam Shepard are so powerful and so telling, so original in their insights into modern American culture, that one wants to announce that any new play by him, especially one that tackles issues of public patriotism and government torture, must be an event of some stature.

So it is all the more disappointing that The God of Hell - new in the US in 2004 and now having its European premiere - is as tiresomely thin as it is mercifully short.

This is a worst-case, black-comedy exaggeration play, a genre Shepard has pulled off in the past. Frank and Emma are heart-of- America Wisconsin farmers, who have taken in Frank's old friend Haynes when he needs refuge. It turns out that he has been not just working for, but tortured by the government. It is something (but what?) to do with plutonium; and Pluto, we are reminded, was the god of hell.

Promptly, a grotesquely Americanist government official, Welch, turns up in this remote household, pretending at first to offer American-flag cookies and to inquire about the size of the house, but evidently on the hunt for Haynes. Though the plot is that of a thriller - Welch soon resumes his torture of Haynes, and his kind of torture (sending electric currents down a wire clamped to Haynes's penis) is specifically associated with totalitarian horror - Shepard's tone is cartoon- comic, making the sinister Welch exaggeratedly gung-ho. And really there is not much plot. Emma puts up what resistance she can, but Welch quickly takes over Haynes and then her husband Frank, taking them off to his all-American torture camp.

Since the whole tone has been cherry-pie and my- country-'tis-of-thee, there is no pathos; the caricature style is so forced that there is no comedy; and the government surveillance and interference are so overblown that there is no conviction either.


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