Is God Is - Sydney Theatre Company (NSW)
Written by Aleshea Harris.
Reviewed by Juliana Payne
Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company
Until 14th October 2023
Tickets: Is God Is - Sydney Theatre Company
- The work is a powerful exploration of justice, retribution, and the profound impact of our choices -
If you like Greek tragedies, or Tarantino, or David Lynch, you’ll like this play. It’s dark, brooding, confronting, and funny, in a provocative way. The word visceral sprang to mind, and stayed there as I watched and heard the audience around me react physically and audibly to the plot, characters, ideas and action on stage.
You could use this play as an HSC exam on the history of Western drama; the text is rampant with weaving interlocking symbolism, imagery and cross cultural and literary references – from Sophocles to Sam Peckinpah to David Cronenberg, and just about everything in between including Scooby-doo and Night of the Living Dead. Ha indeed.
The very text of the written play itself subverts the traditional format where a character’s name is followed by their speech, written in straight lines from left to right. Playwright Aleshea Harris makes the words snake vertically and diagonally across the page, with different sized fonts and colours in place of stage directions. So attention to language and the interpretation of the script means everything in this play. Its subject matter and themes are the drivers, centring Black women in a complex and complicated production. Fortunately the creative team found a fine strong cast to deliver a pretty solid performance.
Photos by Pia Johnson
Henrietta Enyonam Amervor, playing Anaia (a name whose biblical meaning is ‘god answers’ – a reference heavy with significance at a number of levels in this play) gave us a performance that was subtle, professional, convincing and bodes well for her future in the theatre. She made it all look so effortless. Masego Pitso, playing Racine (the name of a seventeenth century French tragedian – again a name redolent with meaning) was raw and riveting. Co-directors Zindzi Okenyo and Shari Sebbens could have coached her into a slightly more nuanced performance, but her talent and energy are plainly evident. The chemistry between these sisters is palpable, establishing an authentic connection that drives the narrative forward.
Cessalee Stovall as the scarred and bitter mother of the girls, was a classical Medea, hell-bent on revenge at any price – we wanted to look away but we couldn’t. The male actors all put in admirable performances but this production belongs well and truly to the women.
The co-directors have ensured the pacing moves rapidly, making every beat land with maximum impact. The language is highly poetic although the skill of the actors’ delivery makes it seem deceptively easy, which is admirable. The rhythms and cadence switch between Greek chorus-style to classical French alexandrine verse to rap to rapid-fire contemporary idiom effortlessly, with a minimal number of slight slips along the way.
The rhythms and cadence switch between Greek chorus-style to classical French alexandrine verse to rap to rapid-fire contemporary idiom effortlessly.
Designer Renee Mulder, lighting designer Jenny Hector and composer/sound designer Joe Paradise Lui employed Freudian, religious and horror motifs, music and sound effects to provide a highly evocative platform that framed the action. The design elements of this production are a testament to the creative talents behind the scenes. The set evokes a strikingly symbolic landscape and provides an evocative backdrop for the unfolding tragedy. Lighting and sound design enhance the emotional beats, creating a haunting atmosphere. The timing of blackouts is impeccable and greatly enhances the horror of the revenge theme.
Theatre as a form is constantly evolving, and Is God Is stands as a solid moment of innovation. It tackles weighty themes and doesn’t resile from provoking and igniting audience reaction.
From the moment the lights dim, the audience is transported into a zone where many questions are posed. The answers in this play may not rest easily with all the people watching. I can imagine the dozens of moral and philosophical debates going on in bars and cars between audience members after the show. At the core of Is God Is is a powerful exploration of justice, retribution, and the profound impact of our choices. And isn’t that a good thing to stop and think about?