Waynetta in The Slobs




[God of Hell review]

Not shock and awe, but overkill
The Independent, 28 October 2005

By Paul Taylor



One of the malign effects of Lady Thatcher's premiership was that she sometimes dragged antagonistic dramatists down to her own level of peevishness and spite. Can one detect an equivalent process with George Bush? I was going to say that playwrights have been goaded into penning theatrical attacks so broad and crude that even he stood a strong chance of understanding them - that notion, though, may be overly optimistic about the Presidential perception. Still, works such as Embedded, Tim Robbins's Iraq war satire, and Romance, David Mamet's courtroom burlesque, are in no danger of being indicted for subtlety. Vigour, black zaniness, bite - those, they have. Sustained dialectical argument - no.

The same is true of The God of Hell, Sam Shepard's furious and wacky assault on the Bush administration, which now receives its English premiere in a robust, vividly acted production at the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Kathy Burke. The author rushed the play into production before last year's US election and helpfully described it (though you'd have to be in a coma not to get the message) as "a take-off on Republican fascism". The setting is a Wisconsin dairy farm, where Frank (Stuart McQuarrie) tends his beloved heifers, and Emma (Lesley Sharp) obsessively over-waters her large, cranky collection of plants. Theirs is an isolated life; a wave from the propane-delivery man is a major event. But now this out-of-touch, innocuous existence is about to be ripped apart.

Hiding in their basement is Haynes (a twitching, scabbed and gibbering Ewen Bremner). This old friend of Frank's appears to be on the run from some top-secret government research centre in Colorado, and his hands emit weird blue flashes whenever touched. In devious pursuit of him comes Ben Daniels's excellent Welch, a smirking, besuited and lethally teasing official, who at first poses as a seller of patriotic knick-knacks "complete with a brand new remixed CD of Pat Boone singing 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic'". But he turns out to be the bullying neo-con from hell as his disturbing designs on Haynes (who is radioactive and must be forcibly detain-ed) and on the couple's home become clear.

"I miss the Cold War so much," Frank cries towards the end, when electric shocks to his genitals have persuaded him to sell up his stock and relinquish his home to a government think-tank. "I miss the Cold War with all my heart," the waitress mused in States of Shock, Shepard's 1992 response to the first Gulf conflict. That play, though, about the Abraham-and-Isaac-like sacrifice of sons to the war machine, had a mythic dimension and an ambiguity that are wholly lacking in The God of Hell.

The author's nightmare vision of an America heading toward totalitarianism is conveyed in vivid, hectoring images. Welch stapling flags all over the kitchen represents the new, coercive and intrusive brand of patriotism. His animal-trainer sadism toward Haynes, whom he pulls around on a lead, with electrodes attached to his penis, evokes the atrocities in Abu Ghraib and the government's refusal to forbid the use of torture in US military facilities. Nuclear-weapons development and a homicidal brutality toward the environment are embodied in the contaminated fugitive.

The problem, though, is that there is nothing in the piece - in terms of plot or character - that puts up any effective resistance to this dystopian perception of things. I count myself an admirer of Shepard, and there were several occasions when I laughed out loud even here (at, say, Emma's oddball, unfazed response to an accidental spillage on her armchair: "It's seen way worse than coffee spills. Premature calves. Afterbirth. Blood all over the place"). But while I am in sympathy with the author's sentiments, I cannot see how this piece, in its overkill and its assumption of like-mindedness, would ever persuade anyone who took a different view. At the end, we see Welch drilling the men in unison marching. The God of Hell presupposes a corresponding conformity on the other side of the footlights.

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