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[God of Hell review]

Hell is right-on, Left-wing claptrap
Daily Telegraph , 28 October 2005

By Charles Spencer

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It's sad to see so distinguished and discerning a theatre as the Donmar Warehouse staging such meretricious claptrap as this.

Sam Shepard has written some powerful, disturbing plays about the dark side of the American dream, but The God of Hell is no more than paranoid propaganda. Indeed, the playwright admits as much himself: describing the piece, which was first staged in New York just before the last American presidential election, as "a take-off on Republican fascism".

Shepard clearly believes that democracy is under threat from the neo-cons, and I freely admit that they give me the creeps too. But bandying the word "fascism" about is downright infantile. Americans had a chance to get rid of Bush and his cronies at the last election, and will probably do so at the next.

This, however, is a drama that panders to the prejudices of those who hate America and all its works. Like the recent plays and poems of Harold Pinter, it suggests that the US is every bit as evil, indeed possibly more evil, than those it is fighting in the so-called war on terror. It is the inane moral equivalence I can't stomach, the suggestion that Bush is as wicked as Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden or Islamic suicide bombers.

Still, such a view will always find vocal support among liberal theatre audiences, for whom self-flagellation about the evils of the West has become a source of profound and perverse pleasure. The God of Hell is set on a dairy farm in the American Mid-West.

A friend of the farmer, who has been working for a sinister government establishment, has come seeking refuge, hotly pursued by a sinister official who terrorises the farmer's wife and tortures the escapee by attaching electric leads to his penis.

As this bloodied, twitching victim emerges from the cellar with a sack over his head, we are clearly meant to draw the conclusion that the American Establishment will soon be routinely torturing its own citizens like the prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Coming on like the malign villain from a Bond movie, the flag-waving, electrode-wielding neo-con spouts his megalomaniac creed. "We can do whatever we want, buddy-boy. That should be clear by now. We're in the driver's seat. Haven't you noticed? There's no more of that nonsense of checks and balances. We're in absolute command. We don't have to answer to a soul." Dear old Pinter couldn't have put it more simplistically himself, though he'd probably have managed a few swear words too. Mind you, those who like this sort of tosh won't find it much better staged than it is here. Kathy Burke's taut production is like a well-aimed kick to the groin, and the actors give it their considerable all.

It will be a long time before I forget the sight of Ewen Bremner's gibbering, twitching torture victim, so wired up by plutonium poisoning and electric shock treatment that he emits sparks whenever he touches anything. Ben Daniels is horribly suave and disconcerting as the government heavy, with his feline smile and smarmy patriotism, while Lesley Sharp movingly captures the fear, and the pluck, of an ordinary woman caught up in a dystopian nightmare.

But whatever the strengths of the production, this remains a dismayingly glib piece of right-on, left-wing paranoia. Sam Shepard will doubtless win the Nobel Prize for Literature on the strength of it.


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