The God of Hell – Theatre N16, London

Writer: Sam Shepard
Director:  Rocky Rodriguez Jr
Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Sam Shepard calls Wisconsin “America’s dirty land” and the action in his hour-long play revolves around the consequences of a plutonium leak, but this absurdist allegory has little to do with ecology and a lot to do with pollution of modern American minds.


On their Wisconsin dairy farm, Frank (Craig Edgley) who “lives for his heifers” and his wife Emma (Helen Foster), who was born there, rarely goes out and rarely receives visitors, brave the cold and get on with their uneventful lives. However, their peace is shattered by the arrival of Frank’s old friend Haynes (Ryan Prescott), who takes up refuge in their cellar, goes into a fit when anyone says “rocky boots” and generates sparks when he is touched. He is radioactive and on the run from a sinister force otherwise known as “The Government”.

Shepard does not waste time with scene-setting preambles, Haynes is already downstairs when the play begins and his pursuer is soon to walk through the door. Abigail Screen’s cartoonish set design for the claustrophobic farmhouse kitchen, gives a surreal feel to Rocky Rodriguez Jr’s edgy, sometimes manic production, as Shepard paints an increasingly bizarre picture of a dystopian present. Haynes’ pursuer is the menacing Welch (Thomas Throe), a cross between an evangelist preacher and a malevolent Uncle Sam, who is quick to impose American values on the farm owners. He berates Emma when noticing that the flagpole outside is missing its flag and decorates her kitchen with Stars and Stripes emblems which, handily, he carries in his briefcase.

Much of the satire is crude and obvious but, once Rodriguez Jr’s production has gained confidence, it is fun and nicely played. Foster’s Emma is sweet and homely, moving towards hysterical as her normality crumbles. Edgley’s dependable Frank leaves to tend for his heifers and returns, somehow brainwashed off stage, as a Welch acolyte. Prescott’s Haynes is only inches short of a total breakdown and Throe’s Welch is not a man that anyone would want to meet in a dark alley.

When Welch rants patriotically about a country now filled with lies, deceit and manipulations of the truth, his words have a topical ring, but this play was written in 2004. Shepard’s political agenda is clear; he is throwing a spotlight on the gullibility of a middle America deluged with right wing propaganda. His messages may have startled audiences when the play first appeared, but they are even more chilling and real today.

Runs until 5 August 2017  | Image: Craft Theatre

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