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A CurtainUp London London Review
God of Hell

Just take a look at what we have here, Emma.
(He pulls out an accordion string of small American flags from his case and holds it up for Emma.)
A starter kit of your basic grassroots flag and decal ensemble. Five ninety-five for the full set of six. Then, from there, you can move right on up to the Proud Patriot package for twelve fifty, which includes banners, whistles, parade equipment, fireworks-complete with a brand-new remixed CD of Pat Boone singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic".
---- Welch
God of Hell
Ben Daniels as Welch and Lesley Sharp as Emma
(Photo: Stephen Cummiskey)
Sam Shepard's latest play may have been written specifically with the intention of influencing last year's American elections, but the Donmar has now brought this political, dark comedy to London. In spite of the transatlantic crossing and the now unchangeable Republican victory, God of Hell still has the power to amuse and unsettle. I endorse what Elyse Sommer had to say about this play a year ago in New York, (See link at end of this review), but because this is a London production, give you a stand alone review. With humour veiling the play's political didacticism, what the author calls "a take-off on Republican fascism" combines Shepard's eye for the niceties of human idiosyncracy with a more serious message. He explores patriotism, compromised democratic values and the threat of unscrupulous nuclear research.

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

Written by Sam Shepard
Directed by Katy Burke

Starring: Lesley Sharp, Ben Daniels
With: Ewen Bremner, Stuart McQuarrie
Design: Jonathan Fensom
Lighting: Jason Taylor
Sound: John Leonard
Costume: Charlotte Bird
Sponsored by SAP
Running time: One hour 15 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6624
Booking to 3rd December 2005
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 26th October 2005 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, Seven Dials, London WC2H 9LX (Tube: Covent Garden)
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