Is God Is – Royal Court – Review

Aleshea Harris’ bloodbath thriller is a bit anemic

★★★

Production photo of Cecilia Noble, Tamara Lawrence and Adelayo Adedayo in Is God Is at the Royal Court theatre in London
Cecilia Noble, Tamara Lawrence and Adelayo Adedayo in Is God Is. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Is God Is by up-and-coming American playwright Aleshea Harris is a revenge tragedy, or perhaps tragicomedy, in a tradition that dates back to the Old Testament and takes in Jacobean tragedy and Quentin Tarantino along the way. Perhaps it most resembles the plays of Martin McDonagh, but, in any comparison with them, I’m afraid Is God Is comes off worse.

17 year old twins find out that their mother, whom they thought had died in a fire when they were small children, is actually alive but finally succumbing to her injuries. The reunion is not entirely joyous because she wants them to kill the man responsible for her condition, her former abusive partner and their father. She wants him ‘dead. Real dead. And lots of blood is fine’. The young women, who were also scarred by the fire,  don’t really question whether this is moral or legal or even practical. As far as they are concerned this is a mission from God, since their mother created them. They are driven by the need for vengeance and so is the plot.

So begins a killing spree.

Aleshea Harris’ play won the Relentless Prize in the USA and the relentless speed is helped by the device of the characters introducing themselves in the third person, rather than reveal their characters through their words and deeds. The killing spree leaves no time for a pause for thought about morality, family, class and race, which are all touched on. And the play’s high speed drive straight down the highway gives no opportunity for a twist or a turn, like the sudden slamming on of brakes and or a hairpin bend, except perhaps at the very end when you might be left wondering whether vengeance is worth it. Compared with all the plays by Martin McDonagh that I have reviewed in the last couple of years, The Lieutenant Of Inishmore, Hangmen, A Very Very Very Dark Matter and his early work The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, seen recently in Chichester and at the Lyric Hammersmith, there are no shocking twists or unexpected revelations, of the kind which enrich his work.

No blood but real fire

The older more extrovert sister Racine acquires a rock- which is thought to be the weapon with which Cain killed Abel- and proceeds to use it against all she comes into contact with, even after the slightest offence.

Unlike, I believe, the original New York presentation of Is God Is, there is no blood splattering Ola Ince’s production. So much for ‘lots of blood is fine’. The violence, while plentiful, is so stylised that it neither shocks nor is any more convincing than the characters’ motives. The horrific scars become symbolic tattoos. Once you take both horror and nuance out of the equation, you’re not left with much.

There might not have been any blood but there was real fire in Chloe Lamford‘s design. I liked her simple cartoon-like sets, with the titles for each scene like Going West and Showdown from the script writ large, encouraging the sense that we were watching chapters of a pulp novel being acted out.

I also enjoyed the acting. Out of a uniformly strong cast, I’ll mention in particular Cecilia Noble as the mother or God or, as in the cast list, She. It was a chilling moment when she conjured up what happened to her on the fateful day of the fire, and her powerful command to ‘make him dead’ was like the word of God.

Her two twins, the older Racine played by Tamara Lawrence and younger Anaia played by Adelayo Adedayo were a great double act. Their repartee was sharp and funny, made more so by the use of the Southern States vernacular and rhythms of speech.

It’s clear that Aleshea Harris is a writer to watch. She has a poet’s ear for dialogue. She is also able to make subtle homages to past masterpieces of the vengeance genre without laying it on thick. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more from her but I don’t think she’s quite there yet.

Is God Is runs at the Royal Court Theatre until 23 October 2021

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