The God of Hell – Rodney Fisher brings American heartland into our laps. (Theatre Review)

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The God of Hell

The Old Fitzroy Theatre

Photograph credits Gareth Davies

Mophead Productions in association with SITCO.

26 August through to 13 September.

You ca buy your tickets here. 

In the program for The God of Hell, (Pluto, plutonium – get it?) Director/Designer Rodney Fisher draws the attention of the audience to the plight of what he calls the humble family farm in its efforts to survive against the influx of giants such agrifarming, and ‘fracking’ (hydraulic fracturing), using the Sam Shepard play to highlight the issues faced by our countries land workers. It’s a long bow to draw in a very American play that is really more about nationalism than it is about farming, but it does give the Sydney audience a point of contact that is badly needed in a play that is so clearly and specifically referencing American issues, in this case, those of the post 9/11 America. The God of Hell is Sam Shepard in full force rallying against the use of a hysterical nationalism to basically give the Bush government permission to do anything it wants, a popular tactic during the first years of the war on terror, and something we saw a little of in our own country, including our first ever race riot. But outside of the farming reference, there is little to connect us with the play besides the simple pleasure of seeing very successful writing beautifully performed, on a magnificent set. Sam Shepard goes into complex depth about the obfuscation of post 9/11 rhetoric, using the subject matter to posit obtuse rationalising against the simple, clear pleasures associated with farming life. It’s difficult to properly understand exactly why the government have an interest in Frank and Emma’s farm, mainly because every clear and simple question or observation offered by Emma is met with a deliberate confusion that is babbled forth even as the farm is becoming lost to the dubious needs of the government. This babble is always shrouded in nationalism, one of the most interesting of subjects in a world that is expanding culturally as fast as it is diminishing physically. What is nationalism other than a response to fear? How can it possibly, ever be defended, and yet every country can wield it as the most powerful of cultural weapons. I’m not familiar with the reasons the small-scale farmers in the Hunter valley are given to justify the encroachment of AGL upon their land, but I’d be willing to wager its an argument that has its foundations in caring for nationhood and the population who will need all that coal seam methane gas, if only the small-scale farmers weren’t only thinking of themselves.

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Frank (Tony Poli) and Emma (Vanessa Downing) are an older couple who have lived on their dairy farm forever, in fact they live in the very house in which Emma was born. They go about their business which used to be larger, ostensibly fighting off the agrifarming projects that their neighbors have succumbed to, keeping their small-scale farm, primarily for aesthetic reasons in the end. Frank, you see, just loves his dairy cows. Loves tending them, milking them, and letting the world go about its business without him. their peaceful life is interrupted by Haynes (Jake Lyall) an old friend of Frank’s who wants to haul up in their basement for a while. At first, Emma and Frank are glad for the excitement of having someone else on the farm, but when Haynes visit attracts the dubious attention of a government representative named Welch (Ben McIvor) Frank and Emma start to get suspicious that something is going on around them over which they have little or no control. Soon it appears Haynes has a strange condition that has him send sparks out from his hands and Emma suspects he may be the victim of some experiments that weren’t quite right, while Welch gets busy hanging American flags around her lounge room, and works to convince her that any disagreement with him, or argument from her is nothing other than an assault on the country they all love.

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The first thing to say about The God of Hell at The Old Fitzroy theatre, is that Rodney Fisher’s set is absolutely astonishing. It stands on an elevated stage, not a natural occurence at the venue and therefore its own kind of startle, even before the beautiful detail of the set comes into its own. The setting is Frank and Emma’s homestead, complete with working stove (a highlight of this production is the real sound and smell of sizzling bacon being cooked – such a great idea) an abundance of live house plants and a door with stained glass. It’s a beautiful set and integral to the joy of the entire performance, as is Fishers direction through which he gets great performances from his cast who do a lot with a complex and at times highly circuitous script. Lyall is a sympathetic Haynes, immediately likeable, and suitably nervous. McIvor is a beautifully sleazy Welch, handing out his small American flag cookies and decorating Emma’s house in strings of American flags. His is probably the most difficult part, he gets the bulk of the confusing lines, he is completely American in style and substance (or lack thereof) and he is a menacing character, but McIvor takes all of this in his stride having fun with the role, the lightness adding to the creepy concept of who his character represents. Poli is a gentle, caring highly suggestible Frank for whom we all feel deeply, no matter how we may feel about his characters choices, but the standout is Downing’s Emma, the person most often on the stage, carrying the bulk of the narrative on her shoulders. Emma is the earth around which the small male moons rotate and Downing gives her the essential grace and dignity the small farming woman deserves and commands. All the players are witty and very funny with their lines, and ease the audience into any of the very American cultural references by cleverly bridging the gap between the two nations. What is most interesting about this fine production of The God of Hell is the rather disarming connection between Australia and the United States Fisher is able to extract out of Shepard’s script which leaves us all with an uneasy feeling just as we clap and cheer for the wonderful night we’ve experienced.

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