The plot involves an American mid-western couple, Emma, played by Annie Cousins (The Dressing Room at the Dog and Trumpet) and Frank, Russel Newman (Heartbreak House) living out an existence cut off from the outside world in what was the mid-west’s dairy belt. The dairies have closed down as a result of Government subsidies. For Emma "Wisconsin is the perfect place. Nothing ever happens here." and for Frank "when I'm feeding my heifers, time stands still for me. Nothing else exists." Into their world come two intruders. Haynes, played by Paul Bertram (Stuff Happens), the fugitive, an old friend of Frank whom he ‘lost track of’ and Welch, played by Ripley Hood (Broken Dreams), his nemesis, by his account ‘a man from the Government.’
The production as a whole, directed by Robyn McLean, failed to come up with the necessary edginess to create the threat and the comedy had nothing to play off. It was partly due to a faltering rhythm in this production but the heavy handedness of the material itself made the job that much more difficult. Shepard devised the play as a pre 2004 election anti Republican piece. ‘“I really wanted to write a black farce,” says Shepard, “so I went back and studied Joe Orton … I used Entertaining Mr. Sloane as a jumping-off place. I started with three characters, the couple, and the stranger who comes to stay with him (sic). The notion of somebody coming out of nowhere and disturbing the peace. It fit (sic) perfectly with the Republican invasion. The whole storm that built up after 9-11… The WELCH character came in last. I wanted him to be like something out of Brecht’s clown plays….What is (this) show-your-colors-mentality about? “Fear,” (Shepard) says. “The sides are being divided now. It’s very obvious…” (Excerpt from An interview with Sam Shepard, Don Shewey, The Village Voice, 2005). The play is a propaganda piece and its problem ‘is that there is nothing in the piece - in terms of plot or character - that puts up any effective resistance to this dystopian (sic) perception of things.’ (Paul Taylor, The Independent 2005)
The set, designed by Mim Pearson, was evocative of the run down ‘ordinariness’ of Emma’s and Frank’s life and the lighting effects by Sian James-Holland, were excellent. Newman was masterful in his blunt terseness, and Cousins credible in her regimentation both capturing the mundaneness of life on a farm where farming had become just a hobby. Bertram’s character, however, failed to engender any real empathy and that portrayed by Hood fell short of the feeling of cold terror that might have lifted the work to another plane. It left Cousins with little to work off in terms of her reaction to an uninvited interloper.
While the resonances of Orton and even Pinter were present the sense that one was about to witness some sinister act of malevolence failed to materialise before the play gathered up the elements of the eventual farce. Propaganda or political art is not of itself any less meritorious than its non-political counterpart you only have to consider the Nazi propagandist, Helene "Leni" Riefenstahl to see the consummate exponent of it. Each seeks to persuade but ‘Instead of seeking to persuade - to change the minds of its viewers - (this work) takes for granted their concurrence … (Shepard) no longer acknowledge(s) any responsibility to (his) audiences..(Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal; On Stage).
The text of the play might suggest, given its title, that the God in question is Pluto from which plutonium is named, the ‘secret’ that Haynes carries as much in his mind, apparently, as in his physical contagion. But there would seem to be a far more vital god at work in this play. Never spoken of by name, the symbolism is far too pointed to be accidental. American playrights on the whole seem to employ more symbolic subtext than their Australian counterparts however the weight of imagery in this text seems excessive even by their standards. Emma constantly moves round the room watering her plants. As if that weren’t enough each of the other characters in turn remind her that she is likely to drown them. But the references don’t stop there, each then remarks on the sound of dripping water. These supposedly casual observations prompt Emma to explain, not once but twice, that it is due to her over assiduous watering habits. How many times must a writer repeat in case we just may not see? Then there is the symbolic fire, which, if anything, is even more pointed and certainly a lot more fun. The electric charges that surge out of Haynes and later, Frank, whenever they are touched, send the unsuspecting Emma flying backward from the shock. As a visual image it is superbly heightened in this production by James-Holland’s spluttering blackouts.
The reference to both Ecclesiasticus and Proverbs could not be more obvious and still remain off text ‘He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.’ (Ecc16:15) It surely could not have gone unnoticed by the play’s American audience, especially in the Bible Belt.It is probably as much this heavy handed symbolism as the nature of the play itself that mars its Australian transition.
It seems to have faired little better in the UK with one reviewer remarking “…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.” (Paul Taylor, The Independent, 2005)
In our case, though, there may be another reason unrelated to stagecraft. We have lived with the scenario painted in ‘The God of Hell’ for more than a decade so it says little we don’t already know. We have been confronted daily with incarceration without trial and the denial of basic human rights in respect of asylum seekers. We’ve dispatched the unwanted off shore. We’ve even sanctioned one of our own being buried in Guantánamo Bay for years. Now we watch an ignominiously brokered deal paper over the shame.
From what appears to be under the surface of ‘The God of Hell’, however, Shepard may be pointing out the interests of another god altogether, one whose eyes are fixed on the land that lies east of Jordan?If so we are like to find our god of hell a Sunday school picnic. Assuming he’s right.
The Raw-Em Theatre Company presents the Australian premiere of
THE GOD OF HELL
by Sam Shepard
Venue: Newtown Theatre
Dates: 4 to 28 April
Time: Tues to Sat 8:00 pm
Tickets: $27.50/$22.50 (concession) Previews 4-6 April $17.50
Bookings: MCA Ticketing 1300 306 776 or www.mca-tix.com