The Gods Weep
Hampstead Theatre, London
Literalism is a word that goes well with the qualifier "deadly". In The Gods Weep, Dennis Kelly has taken the cliché of "blood on the carpet", often used journalistically to describe boardroom bust-ups, and made it literal.
For the first half of this play, Catherine and Richard, rival executives of a nameless utilities provider, battle verbally over who will succeed its founder, Colm, played by a gaunt and mad Jeremy Irons. Then, suddenly, we are on a literal battlefield, the two factions turned into soldiers willing to commit any atrocity in return for corporate power. As a metaphor for the viciousness of capitalism, it is literal. But is it deadly?
Actually, no. Although this new play, commissioned and performed by the RSC, lasts nearly three hours - and, I am told, had to be cut down from four - it is never boring. It is outrageous, ridiculous, over the top, confusingly constructed (for a while I hoped the warfare would prove to be the product of the sick Colm's fevered hallucinations), politically naive, uncertain in tone, by turns portentous and unintentionally funny, but it is not dull.
It is a bad play, but a bad play with the courage of its own mad convictions. What it is not, sadly, is so bad that it is good. Kelly, who co-wrote the excellent BBC3 sitcom Pulling (and has received good notices for plays such as Love and Money and Orphans), has not proved here incapable of writing some strong speeches. Irons begins the proceedings with a bold, bizarre monologue delivered to Colm's fellow board members about a nightmare he has just had about collecting shells on a beach. There was, in this dream, a blackhead on his belly.
He squeezed it, "and it kept coming, metres and metres of this, thick as your finger". As an image of a man rotting from the inside and contaminating his environment, it is not bad. Later, Colm describes how he destroyed a business rival named Ken for no better reason than he had written something critical about him in a trade paper. When Ken blew his brains out, he thought: "I did that. That was me. Look at me. That was me, look at what I did." It is a momentarily arresting depiction of power abused for its own sake.
Unfortunately, the play's central conceit - that corporate infighting can be compared to a civil war that lays waste to a country, reducing its citizens to peasants living in tents constructed out of foliage - is entirely incredible and, in addition, unrealisable on the stage (despite the able direction of Maria Aberg, who throws her actors across all corners of Naomi Dawson's concrete, tomb-like set). The re-cladding of the corporate suits into army fatigues is particularly daft and, even now, I cannot decide who looked more butch in khaki: jutty Catherine, played by Helen Schlesinger, or Jonathan Slinger's little, gingery Richard.
When I tell you that the story begins with Colm dividing his corporate kingdom between two younger executives, that he is aided by a plain-speaking lieutenant and that he ends up sheltering in the countryside beside his estranged daughter, you will guess why we have the seashore dream at the beginning.
This is an RSC "response" to King Lear, as commissioned by its artistic director, Michael Boyd, who seems as at sea with new writing as he is at home with the Bard himself. Lear does not require a response, being in itself an exhaustive interrogation of parental love, cruelty, megalomania, nihilism and the redemptive power of sympathy. For a reworking of its themes, give me On Golden Pond, any day.
Jeremy Irons is a highly capable actor, but he is neither as magnetic nor as sympathetic as Henry Fonda was in that film. He is better here at the going-mad scenes than when he is required to find his sanity - rejecting capitalism in favour of family. His initial rages and cruelties are impressive; the pathos of his sojourn on the blasted heath, less so. He does, however, in his duets with his illegitimate daughter, Barbara (Joanna Horton doing a sarf London voice), achieve a kind of barmy comedy that is, I am pretty sure, intentional.
There is one screamingly funny sequence in which he returns on set with a squirrel at the end of a stick, only for Barbara to tease out of him the shaming truth that it was already dead when he impaled it. Yet his plans to rustle sheep in the moonlight seem meant to be taken seriously, even romantically.
Although I judge Kelly not guilty of attempting to shoehorn the dramatist's old standby of incest into the piece, he has crammed almost everything else into it: not just meaningful speeches on madness and society, and the photosynthesis of plants, but also Shakespearian devices such as the fake death and unexpected resurrection. "The universe has been here for 15 billion years. We have waited 15 billion years for this moment," Colm says just before the end. Not for this play, we haven't.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times.