The God of Hell review at Theatre N16, London – ‘savage, surrealist satire’
Sam Shepard’s vitriolic 2005 satire The God of Hell is an uncomfortable and imperfect play. Brutal and occasionally bemusing, it tells the story of a fugitive from a sinister government programme hiding from his pursuers on a Wisconsin dairy farm, its tone of gathering menace quickly dissolving into a surreal nightmare.
Director Rocky Rodriguez Jr’s revival builds on this absurdist streak, juggling humour and domestic horror to infuse the show with a brash, unsubtle silliness that is undeniably engaging.
Ryan Prescott plays unstable fugitive Haynes, his hands constantly shaking when they aren’t producing visible sparks of static electricity. His volatile temper and remorseful whimpering create exactly the right amount of doubt about his motivations to make the story gripping.
Helen Foster gives a nuanced performance as neurotic farmer Emma, whose rustic cheerfulness turns to desperate defiance as her home is invaded. Meanwhile, drawling black-suited government agent Welch – played by a tentative Thomas Thoroe – feels both cartoonish and deeply malevolent.
Abigail Screen’s striking, distinctive set depicts a farmhouse kitchen in bold, black and white cardboard cut-outs. Surrounding the stage on three sides, the audience peers in through windows suspended around the space, elegantly underlining the story’s voyeuristic perspective.
By contrast, the lighting design is jarring and at times incoherent – switching rapidly and arbitrarily between moody shadows and blazing brightness.
At times, the production’s raw aesthetic can feel both unfinished and unpolished. Nevertheless, in our era of alternative facts and surging authoritarianism, this timely, tightly-wound revival feels intensely relevant.