The set in this production of The God of Hell is a paradox. It is monochrome yet full of life. It looks cheap and tacky and yet a fully functioning living space. It’s dry and yet by the end there’s water everywhere. It brought to mind the 1998 motion picture Pleasantville, in which everything in a 1950s American community is hunky-dory, tickety-boo before something happens that irrevocably changes everything, and colour was both literally and figuratively brought into a black-and-white world. The available performance space is used very well, extending out in one corner where there would normally be additional seating for members of the audience.
I recall a time when what Emma (Helen Foster) calls an “open door policy” was standard practice even in England, let alone the American Midwest. Not so much that doors were physically kept open – the British weather being what it is makes this unfeasible – but that there wasn’t anywhere near the sort of security on hand today. There was certainly no need to get back out of bed, having already climbed into it, to go back downstairs and make doubly sure the back door was locked.
But the transition that Emma and her husband Frank (Craig Edgley) find themselves going through from country folk minding their own business to being in the thick of government activity is severe and sudden. Graig Haynes (Ryan Prescott, furnishing this production with a case study in how to portray dark comedy), a long-standing friend of Frank, is over to stay as a guest on a short-term basis, but Welch (Thomas Throe) is after him for reasons that would be too much of a spoiler to repeat here.
While the dialogue was easy enough to understand, a little tightening needs to happen with regards to these American accents, which were occasionally so wonky they proved to be a tad distracting. In terms of the unfolding storyline, it is, with the benefit of hindsight, of some concern that someone as level-headed as Frank could so quickly become sucked into a bizarre government-sponsored revolutionary movement. In short, the man is radicalised into something quite unpalatable.
An American play by an American writer, there is virtually zero subtlety. Welch is crystal clear, he and other government cronies are “in absolute demand” and they can “do whatever we want”. But when characters raise their voices in such an intimate theatre space, the sound ricochets around the room. Welch goes so far as to staple bunting displaying small American flags. It brought to mind a song sung by Stewie Griffin in an episode of the animated television series Family Guy: “Establishment, establishment / You always know what’s best!”
The timing could be improved on somewhat, though as the run continues to bed down this will, I suspect, be addressed naturally. The timing of the production itself, however, is perfect. The play, all in all, is thought-provoking, particularly as it is (sadly) even more poignant and relevant now than it was when it was first produced in 2004. Though there are asides to the audience that threaten to become preachy, they are, in the end, invitations to reflect rather than dictatorial instructions. As humorous as it is harrowing, at just three scenes long, it’s an outspoken and curious production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The setting is a Wisconsin dairy farm, where the heifer-breeding Frank and Emma live in rustic isolation. But their peace has been shattered by Graig Haynes, a radioactive refugee from a plutonium-producing establishment. While he hides in the basement, a supposed salesman of patriotic baubles named Welch turns up in hot pursuit. What follows is a process of intimidation in which Welch not only gets his man, but terrorises the innocent mid-Westerners.
Craft Theatre are producing a full season of 4 shows over the next 12 months across multiple London fringe venues, including The God of Hell.
Other pieces will include: The Nazi Comparison – devised with excerpts from Hanns Johst’s Schlageter (one of the few “Nazi” plays) juxtaposed with contemporary political rhetoric; and His Name Was Samir Nasrallah – devised from the story of Rachel Corrie, and Craft Theatre’s first-hand experience on the front line of the European Refugee Crisis.
The God of Hell
Playwright Sam Shepard
Director Rock Rodriguez Jr.
Cast Ryan Prescott, Toby Trimby, Helen Foster and Craig Edgley
Producers Craft Theatre
Performance Dates July 12th 2017 – Aug 5th 2017
Running Time 70 mins
Theatre N16, The Bedford Pub, 77 Bedford Hill, London SW12 9HD