Theatre N16, London – until 6 August 2017
Frank (Craig Edgley) tends the heifers – someone has to. The corporates have moved all the dairy farmers out West, but Emma (Helen Foster) and Frank stay true to their roots. So much so that they live in the house Emma grew up in, was even born in – on the sofa that visitor Graig Haynes (Ryan Prescott) is sitting on.
This is one of the less absurd parts to Sam Shepard’s surrealist work The God of Hell, a concept that Rocky Rodriguez Jr. runs with, albeit in no specific direction. Being absurd for the sake of it is not a wise directorial choice.
Abigail Screen’s design is a stylized black slapdash paint on white. It’s quirky, but it’s not original. The off-the-wall drawn-on fakery mimics the surrealist style of the play and adds comic nuance, especially when one of Emma’s (Foster) nervous ticks is to water the plants. Real water; a white watering can; fake cardboard cacti. It’s ridiculous, but it’s in keeping. So, the audience buys in to it.
Rodriguez picks up on these details well and uses them to full effect – the right side of insane. Just as well, as Shepard’s story about a radioactive stranger coming to stay in a dairy farm and being pursued by a mysterious government official, the stunted Welch (Thomas Thoroe), is two shades shy of insanity. The beauty in Shepard’s writing is that may have a plotline akin to Roswell or The X Files, but the structuring, language and commitment to concept is enough for the audience to suspend disbelief and go along with it. For companies that want to push the boundaries of comedia dell’arte, The God of Hell is a gift.
This production has a story that engages & surprises and a set of performers that exhibit vocal range and personality, despite some faltering American accents. Whether it’s because the actors can’t do the stereotypical mid-West drawl, or whether it’s intentional to add quirkiness and spoof to the production, it doesn’t matter. It kind of works – it helps paint the aural picture. This version would make for a very amusing radio show, or one of those new-fangled podcasts the millennials are all crazy about.
But this is a visual, theatrical performance and Rodriguez has clearly spent far too little time working on the actors’ physicality. With the exception of Emma (Foster), who utilises her a background in physical characterization and clowning to good effect, the cast are deadpan and dull. If intentional, it’s a bad directorial choice; if not, it shows a lack of range. But there is nothing behind the eyes of any of the men. No emotion, no thought process, no glimmer of character motivation or background. Even when the story descends into complete chaos (too much so for this particular reviewer) the actors don’t react; moving hurriedly into bouffon is not sufficient to merit audience connection.
The God of Hell is a deceptively tricky work, a fine line between absurdly believable and completely unsustainable. Rodriguez recognizes this line, but strays too often over into an unintentional state of confusion, rather than knowingly keeping his audience off-kilter.