Aleshea Harris (young, American and award-winning) is an arsonist of a playwright. By the end of Is God Is, I found I was shaking and overwhelmed – in body, if not altogether in mind – by the play’s incendiary power. This visceral reaction might not be as Harris intended: her 2017 play is presented in a stylised, arch and entertaining way, as though to say: no need to take this too seriously. How you react may depend on how inured you are to violence: the Tarantino-proof might emerge from the Royal Court unscalded. But not since the first night of Sarah Kane’s Blasted have I felt so annihilated by a play.
Directed with frisky ruthlessness by Ola Ince, the evening begins with a fantastic coup de théâtre: a blazing fringe of fire across the stage, against which twin sisters writhe in pain. Eighteen years after their father set fire to the family, these girls are summoned to their mother’s hospital bed. Scarred themselves, they had been – implausibly – unaware their mother had survived. Cecilia Noble is terrifyingly good – and, in a sinister way, funny – as a disfigured colossus, propped up on pillows, who looks somewhere between an Egyptian mummy and a vengeful owl, and has a deep voice, as though broadcasting from beyond the grave, served up with a spooky laugh. She is referred to by her daughters as “God” because, after all, she created them. She tells them to murder their father.
Racine (Tamara Lawrance) and Anaia (Adelayo Adedayo), a dynamically played duo, set out on their vengeful road trip from the deep south through the California desert. They fetch up at a bourgeois, fairytale house on a hill, with yellow walls and teal shutters, where they encounter a nicely groomed stepmother (appropriately suburban Vivienne Acheampong) and entertainingly played twin half-brothers. Riley (Rudophe Mdlongwa) is a myopic teenager who busies himself watering succulents, and Scotch is a wannabe poet with gold chains and teeth to match (Ernest Kingsley Jnr) who hilariously showcases his lousy metaphors. The girls turn up armed with a lethal boulder inside a white sock.
Chloe Lamford’s elegant, minimalist set employs white cubes – as if in an art gallery in which violence is the only exhibit. Postmodern devices abound. The father, played with jaunty froideur by Mark Monero, saunters in from the back of the stage, wearing a cowboy hat, beneath a sign that reads “showdown”. If this is no more than a parodic western, why not laugh? But it is precisely the unseriousness that creates the play’s queasily amoral atmosphere. Anaia offers a feeble flicker of conscience as she urges Racine to kill no one other than their father. But in this original, entertaining and sickening bloodbath of a drama, Old Testament thuggery leaves no room for moral consolation.
Camp Siegfried takes place within what resembles an empty showroom with silver louvred blinds (by designer Rosanna Vize). Videos of Nazi rallies are projected on the back wall (Tal Rosner) in lieu of ornament. Two sparkling actors – Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon – are marooned in what is, for all the intelligent earnestness of playwright Bess Wohl’s intentions, a moribund piece about a real-life US Nazi summer camp on Long Island in 1938. These camps existed across the US in support of the Third Reich. An interesting subject, potentially. But this is a thin two-hander with often slack dialogue and not enough context to encourage us to care a reichsmark about either character.
The girl known as “Her” is not so much a sweet as a febrile 16 – part Granny, part teen. Ferran’s attention to detail is astonishing, although one can become distracted by the neurotic nuances of her performance. Thallon as “Him” confidently shows a sullied dysfunction beneath his gloss and swank. Wohl allows us to see how Nazi ideology cheats this couple of their youth: any chance of a healthy romance is perverted by the camp’s fascist imperative to procreate and bring forth Aryan children. In a programme interview, Wohl explains her wish to interrogate a “dark chapter” in US history and relate it to endangered democracy today – but, in practice, the play seems only notionally in conversation with the present.
Inua Ellams, poet and playwright (author of Barber Shop Chronicles, his biggest hit at the National), has been reading his poems in Search Party – the good, the middling and the ugly – from juvenilia to more finished pieces. With chutzpah and charm he has concocted a playful route into his work that puts audience members in charge. Think of a word. Now throw it – like a fish to a sea lion – his way. He will type your word into his iPad (where a lifetime’s work is stored), and the chances are that he will find, then read aloud, a poem that contains it.
Each night is different – and fun, in its limited way. Our words included: tattoo (nothing doing, except in an essay too long to read), haram (an excellent poem about Boko Haram) and woman (a lovely poem about his parents’ anniversary). This show is an improvised companion piece to last year’s zestful autobiographical monologue An Evening With an Immigrant (Ellams is from northern Nigeria).
The show ends with a Q&A. Someone asked: “Why do you do this?” This discouraging question produced an interesting response in which Ellams convincingly argued that poetry should become more communal. He sees poetry in the UK as being, too often, a search for light conducted in the dark. But airing this view was possibly unwise, as it inspired an audience member to ask if he could read his own poetry on stage – a request briefly and gracefully granted. This was a brave, quirky and engaging show in which Ellams held his own and reminded us that poetry amounts to more than a word search.
Star ratings (out of five)
Is God Is ★★★★
Camp Siegfried ★★
Search Party ★★★