Is God Is at the Royal Court – review
Aleshea Harris' play has its UK premiere
The English Jacobean revenge playwrights of the 17th century would recognise the young African American Aleshea Harris as one of their own. Her debut play, first seen in 2018, shares their dazzling darkness, a sense of a world so out of kilter that it can only be righted by the most violent and bloody wrongs.
Instead of a murderous continental court, she presents us with a suburban family drama, the story of twin sisters, both hideously burned by a fire that they believe killed their mother. In Ola Ince's staggeringly assured, crystal-clear production of the British premiere, that's the first thing we see: flames surging up from the stage to scar their skin as they collapse in stylised movements.
Anaia (Adelayo Adedayo) is disfigured - "Face look like it melted and then froze" - and trapped in "a prison of sweetness." "Girl so ugly don't get to be mean," she says. Racine (Tamara Lawrance) is "the rough one". Both have their lives changed by a letter, from the mother they thought to be dead, who turns out to be living, in a rest home for the weary, hiding her "body like an alligator" from the world.
She's not only alive, but she assumes the status of God – not a god, but the God, of the blood-thirsty Old Testament kind. It turns out the fire the girls believed to be an accident was in fact deliberately set by their father, in his attempt to burn her to death. Now she wants revenge. In Cecilia Noble's magisterial and terrifying performance, she makes herself absolutely clear. She wants him: "Dead, real dead. Lots of blood is fine."
That's what we subsequently get in a staged road movie, presented in cartoon-like tableau, which sends the 21-year-olds out West, where they first encounter a drunk, suicidal lawyer and then the Man's (as their father is known) new family: twin brothers, Riley and Scotch, and his dissatisfied wife Angie. Finally, the Man himself appears.
The sisters are armed with a "rock in a sock" which, like every scene on Chloe Lamford's bright, breezy designs, comes labelled with a purpose. In this case it is "the weapon" and it shoots on from the wings, attached to a large boulder. After the women encounter the brothers in their suburban dream home (yellow wood, teal shutters), where the arugula salad is piled high, the ensuing "Showdown" is both inevitable and unexpected.
The garish tones of the set are reflected in a language that is consistently sharp and spiked. Is God Is is simultaneously very funny and deeply troubling and its effects spring from the care with which Harris manipulates and fires words. Although it takes place in a landscape that Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Leone and Sam Shepard would all recognise, the way she moves within that world is entirely her own.
Themes bubble and disperse: the violence of men towards women, the sources of righteous anger, the dark history of America, strewn with burnt and mangled bodies, grown on blood-soaked land, the role of religion in fuelling revenge. Nothing is over-weighted but everything matters as the action reaches a conclusion that is both pointed and poignant.
Yet there's no sentiment in the writing, and the performances are also noticeably direct, creating characters who shine brightly. Ernest Kingsley Jnr and Rudolphe Mdlongwa are excellent as the twin brothers, both dislikeable in different ways. Lawrance brings cheery practicality to Racine's avenging spirit, painting in a background of abuse and unhappiness with a smile fixed permanently to her face; Adedayo gives Anaia a constant sulky shrug, a gentle acceptance of the ironies of life and the sense that the universe is against her which gradually morphs into something sadder.
It is an unforgettably original evening, the announcement of a playwright who reaches British stages garlanded with awards. On this showing, all are deserved.