Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Aug 26 – Sep 13, 2014
Playwright: Sam Shepard
Director: Rodney Fisher
Cast: Vanessa Downing, Jake Lyall, Ben McIvor, Tony Poli
Image by Gareth Davies
Sam Shepard’s The God Of Hell portrays patriotism as a dangerous concept. In the name of national pride, morality is distorted and human rights are nullified for the benefit of an abstract higher power. The meaning of citizenry is subversively explored, against the backdrop of a traditional and idyllic farm, where residents live honest existences without the need for labels of jingoistic identification. Emma and Frank live quietly in Missouri, with cows and plants occupying their attention, and they want for nothing. Their lives are simple but complete, and we admire their wholesome day-to-day routine, which the play presents at some level of glorification. Complications emerge when characters appear to disrupt their peace, and we observe scenes of destruction transpiring as a result of narcissism, greed and ignorance.
Helmed by Rodney Fisher who serves as director and designer, the production is inventive, exuberant and sophisticated. It is a very good looking show, with an ambitious set that is perfectly proportioned and elegantly executed, communicating a sense of rustic purity that is immediately endearing. Together with Ryan Shuker’s lighting, Fisher has materialised a blissful vision that represents an ideal we cannot bear to see tainted. Also successful is sound designer Max Lyandvert’s work, which provides a beautiful dimension of rural domesticity that eventually develops into something much more sinister.
Fisher’s direction is lively and precise, with a surprising clarity that always places emphasis on the narrative. It is very accomplished storytelling that constantly introduces fresh elements of interest to maintain a connection with the audience. Even when Shepard’s script becomes alienating or abstruse, the plot continues to be excitingly coherent. Fisher achieves a balance between naturalism and theatricality that makes The God Of Hell fascinating and enjoyable. The smell of bacon cooking on a stove top is both an ordinary occurrence and a flamboyant stage flourish. The four actors too, are impressively believable, while being quite dazzlingly entertaining.
Emma is played by Vanessa Downing who keeps us anchored in a place of reality while the play escalates to dramatic heights. Downing is charming, funny and entirely likable, so we identify with Emma readily, even if her life is probably quite unlike anybody’s in Sydney. She provides an authenticity that allows an understating and affiliation, and we form an important emotional bond with that character. Her husband Frank is equally charismatic, thanks to Tony Poli’s vibrant stage energy and immense presence. Jake Lyall as Haynes has extraordinary focus, giving valuable gravity to a mysterious role, and Ben McIvor’s playful interpretation of the villainous Welch is critical to the dynamic and buoyant quality of the production.
It is easy to be fatigued by arguments about politics, terrorism, torture and military power. Thirteen years have past since the September 11 attacks, and no one is any closer to winning either the real or metaphysical wars against terror. Governments are unable to provide effective solutions, and every form of media bombards with incessant information that we can only, at best, struggle with. These themes have become bewildering, and like Emma, we can only attempt to not be lured into convenient modes of ideology and behaviour. It is a challenge to preserve a clear conscience and a pure heart, but it is the human spirit that will always hope for Emma to stay uncontaminated, regardless of the insurmountable odds she faces at the play’s end.