“I came to the city. I saw the people were filthy. And those who were not filthy were still filthy.”
Howard Barker’s visceral and confrontational new play imagines the Biblical tale of Lot as a modern fable. In Barker’s world, sin and the permission of sin are the same thing, and generate disgust and fascination in equal measure. Unlike the original story of Lot (though very like much of the Old Testament), the moral is ambivalent, difficult to measure and deduce.
In Lot and his God, Barker masterfully sets up a dichotomy between possession and permission. At its core, this is a love story, but one entirely lacking in sentimentality. The relationship between Lot and his wife is exemplified succinctly in her naming – at all times, she is referred to only as ‘Lot’s wife’. Permission of sin is what destroyed Sodom, and here, it torments Lot. The tension of the piece comes from Lot’s possession of his wife, twinned with his permission of her sin, and it is executed with delicious precision.
However, for a play so concerned with sin, filth and visceral desire, it felt a little too aridly intellectual and considered. There is no question that Barker is one of our greatest living dramatists, but Lot and his God has a tendency to tell us rather than show us. Desire, infidelity, excruciating pain and “exquisite perversity” are described, rather than performed. This makes the few subtle physical expressions of desire all the more satisfying and tantilising. Drogheda (Justin Avoth) gently strokes the back of a chair as he contemplates Lot’s wife, telling more with this delicate gesture than text ever could. However, it left me thinking rather than feeling about visceral sin. This is a play of the head, rather than the gut, and the gut is rather more to my taste. As an intellectual examination of sexual sinfulness, though, Barker has excelled himself.
Here, the devil (or indeed, God) is in the detail. From the scuffed and burned lino floor, to the crumbling walls, and eerily realistic cobwebs hanging from the tired ceiling fan, designer Fotini Dimou has done a sterling job. The setting, a fittingly filthy cafe, is a liminal space – the characters want to leave, persuade, seduce, tempt, attract the attention of a waiter. It is a space in flux.
The four actors in this piece deliver strong and at times electric performances. The text is exacting, and it was a relief that the moments of comedy were well executed. Drogheda (Justin Avoth) is perhaps at times too earnest, but Hermione Gulliford as Lot’s wife delivers an excellent performance – rich, thick, smooth and luxurious as cream. Mark Tandy as Lot is also at times mesmerising: during his conversation with God (also the best written scene in the play), I was utterly gripped.
Lot and his God is a tightly structured piece and Robyn Winfield’s direction is slick and satisfyingly economical. It is well worth seeing, particularly if you prefer the intellectual to the physical. It allows us to look over the precipice into sin, without actually falling over the edge. The way the story hinges on permission carries interesting implications for an audience, particularly in the intimate setting of the Print Room. Lot and his God exists with our permission, and we let it happen.
Lot and His God runs until 24 November at the Print Room. For more information and tickets, visit The Print Room website.