Review: The God that Comes (Starring Hawksley Workman)

Posted by Wayves volunteer Hugo Dann 19/04/2013

Hawksley Workman invokes The God That Comes on stage at The Marquee in Halifax.

By Hugo Dann

On a rougher edge of the city, a Son of God is being worshipped. He is a God of love whose ritual involves the sharing of wine, and he promises release from suffering. His faith is hugely popular with women, the poor and society's outcasts, and hugely unpopular with the powers that be. They call it a foreign cult and forcibly persecute its adherents.

This sounds like the conventional narrative of the rise of Christianity, but it's actually the plot of a Greek tragedy, The Bakkhai, about the God Dionysos, Son of Zeus, written by Athenian playwright Euripedes some 400 years before the Christian era. Now Halifax's 2b theatre company has brought a highly theatrical retelling of this very old tale to The Marquee on Gottingen Street. Starring Hawksley Workman in a powerful solo performance, The God That Comes was co-written by Workman and 2b theatre's Co-Artistic Director, Christian Barry. 

Euripedes' play is here stripped down to its barest elements. His cast of eight, with chorus of female followers of Dionysos, are reduced to three characters: the God, the young King who opposes him, and the King's mother, who slaughters her own son in a god-inspired frenzy. All are portrayed by Workman (who also stands outside the action as story-teller), and defined with a clever use of props and costume in a deceptively simple, 'once upon a time' presentation.

Euripedes' original play is overtly queer, and The God That Comes holds true to its source. Dionysos is described    and presented as both androgynous and very sexual. The King is in a tortured crisis of sexual and gender identity, which the God's arrival pushes to catastrophe. Hawksley Workman has always been comfortable enough in his own skin to play with transgressing sexual and gender boundaries in his music, and he doesn't shy away here. No innuendo is left unturned. His lyrics, his physicality, even his musical references, from Battle Hymn of the Republic to Ukele Lady, constantly switch and confound gender and sexual identities. 

Workman is terrific! He is such an accomplished performer that he  seduces his audience seemingly without effort. With Director Christian Barry and Sound Designer Jesse Ash, he uses all the tricks of his trade to create an all encompassing world of music and sound. Kudos here must also go to Stage Manager Louisa Adamson and Sound Operator Mr. Lonely. Vocally, Workman veers from Tiny Tim to chanelling German punk goddess Nina Hagen. He plays all the instruments, and dives into the depths of grunge guitar riffs with all the raw fervor of Neil Young at his roughest. 

Lyrics are repeated over and over again, evoking both prayer and frenzy. When Workman invokes the God at the opening of the play, ferociously dancing and pounding the stage, the music builds and builds until it feels like the unleashed fury of a mob gone out of control. It is at these moments, by times ironically self-aware with its pop melodies and cultural references, or losing itself in wild rock and roll abandon, that The God That Comes is at its very best.

All of the production elements are outstanding and Director Christian Barry wields them with a deft and invisible hand. The Marquee, poised as it is on the "rougher" edges of downtown Halifax, is the perfect venue.

I have a long accquaintance with Euripedes' original play, having once, just for fun, made my own translation. In October of last year, I played the King's grandfather, Kadmos (one of the characters left out of The God That Comes) in a production in Montreal.  

There are several confrontations between the God and the King in Euripedes' play, and the homoerotic tension between them is clearly evident. Dionysos slowly unleashes the King's long suppressed desires, leading him to dress as a woman and spy on the rites he imagines as drunken orgies. Intoxicated by the God, his mother and the other worshippers mistake him for a wild animal and tear him to pieces. HIs mother's realization of her crime and the god's cruelty are the awful climax of the drama. 

Euripedes' play is complex and critics still divide on its meaning. It seems to be about trying to find a balance between letting go of oneself and moderation. Equally, it seems to suggest that the gods are capricious and dangerous, and the best one can do is try to live a good life. Honour the gods, but keep your head down and hope for the best. Not very consoling. 

Some of these complexities are inevitably lost in this current transition from classical play to solo rock cantata, and I found myself wondering if somehow they might have been retained.

But perhaps the comparison is unfair. The Bakkhai, despite its power as a written work, doesn't always succeed in performance. What The God That Comes achieves, through the medium of rock and roll and Hawksley Workman's remarkable performance, is a visceral connection betwen this strange, ancient tale and its modern audience. No small feat and well worth the price of admission!

There are three performances left (the play closes on April 21st). All performances are at The Marquee Club, and are restricted to ages 19 and up.

Doors open at 7:15 PM and the Show is at 8 PM. 

Tickets are $35 regular/$26 student via the etix link at www.2btheatre.com, or by clicking here.

Photos courtesy of 2b theatre company. 

 

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