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A CurtainUp London Review
God of Hell
The play is set in Wisconsin, in a world which has dystopian undertones but which is chillingly close to today's reality. The sound of lowing cows gives a background atmosphere to the homely, although fairly shabby, domestic scene. Kitsch floral carpet, well-worn furniture and a multitude of houseplants populate the stage.
The couple who inhabit this space are one of the few remaining small dairy farmers in a region taken over by agribusiness. Frank (Stuart McQuarrie) is a simple, heifer-loving, wholesome type of American guy. His wife Emma, in an absolutely engaging and convincing performance by Lesley Sharp, has lived in this house since she was born, onto the very same carpet. Because of the cold, untraversable winters and lack of human company, Emma has turned into a compulsive plant-waterer.
Into their lives of routine and remoteness, Haynes (Ewen Bremner) arrives to stay in their basement. Wild-eyed and frantically nervy, he seems to be fleeing a mysterious, perhaps governmental, authority. Darkly elliptical hints of scientific testing are compounded by his static-charged touch which emits lightning flashes of electricity whenever he comes into contact with another human. Ben Daniels' sinisterly slick, salesman-style, besuited intruder, Welch, then appears. Offering American flag cookies and probing Emma about their guest, he is glib, suspiciously well-informed, indomitable and incredibly menacing. Soon, the farm's simple, steady existence is endangered by these two incomers and their links to some top secret nuclear project. The title, God of Hell, refers to Pluto and the radioactive material Plutonium, whose cross-generational contamination threatens the natural life cycles embodied in the dairy farm. With an "us and them" mentality and terror-mongering, patriotism is harnessed and manipulated to an unprincipled political end.
Over the past few years, Kathy Burke has emerged as an intriguing director, always tackling interesting, often politically charged projects, and managing them successfully. In her hands, this expert cast is magnificent. Moreover, to an English ear at any rate, they navigate the American accent admirably.
This is the kind of play which the Donmar, with Michael Grandage's unerring nose for decent new writing, does so well. With the original political objective no longer applicable, the play assumes a more general social relevance. Also, Shepard's writing tends to provoke thought rather than dictate. The lack of blatant instruction saves this piece from becoming propaganda. The shift from comedy to tragedy is always elusively difficult but, when done well, can be supremely effective. This production accomplishes it, with a harrowing wrench from gentle, observational humour into a grotesque caricature of current political reality. The result is a bleakly comic, polemical piece, well-written and impeccably acted.
God of Hell Off-Off-Broadway premiere
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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