Commissioned for Shakespeare Globe’s 2011 summer season, The God of Soho is a dark, debauched frolic through playwright Chris Hannah’s disturbing vision of heaven and the earthly underworld.
Down below and up above, there’s been a worrying attitude of “anything goes” and things are far from being in the order they should be. Opening with a meeting of the gods, as evocative of Greek mythology as of the quirks of modern life, this is a corrupt fairytale, rife with hairy gods, dog gods and a goddess of love, sex and beauty with a missing mojo. Clem, the goddess in question, is banished to earth by daddy Big God to learn the error of her desperate ways, head over heels in lust and love with a fellow god. As she descends into the yard to mingle with the groundlings, the action is kicked off and we descend with her into the mire of the manic, muddled, muddy mess that is modern Soho.
As with any play, it is the characters who are the life blood of the text. They jump out of the page with their bizarre idiosyncracies, from Baz, the coke-sniffing rock musician, to his girlfriend Natty, a wannabe star straight out of any reality TV show. Crowded with sex shops, whip-cracking prostitutes and a thief with a penchant for fetish items, this is a tale of amorality that evokes the bawdy Mistress Quickly’s whorehouse from Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure or Pericles’s brothel. Writing with the specific demands and delights of the Globe stage in mind, Hannan must surely have had these forerunners in his head, and cleverly engages with the Shakespearean and Jacobean taste for the lewd and profligate whilst creating a text that feels overwhelmingly immediate in its concerns, themes and characters. This is a play as much concerned with contemporary celebrity culture as the ancient mythology of the heavens.
Unusually too, this is a script that uses its sparse stage directions to great effect to enhance the storytelling and add further symbolic levels to an already richly layered play. Clem’s mattress, adorned with a smudged pink heart, visualises the loss of her sex symbol status: now she has fallen in love herself, she can no longer inspire such emotion in others. Simiarly, when we first meet Natty, she is described as trying to burn off a tattoo and sitting on the back of a customised sofa inscribed with the names “Baz” and “Natty”. Throughout the play, images are established and then questioned, subverted and destroyed – especially those associated with love, sex and money. If Natty is a loose, life-loving, carefree woman happy to decorate her body, she is also one who regrets the decisions she has made and tries to erase the past in light of her in-built concern for public appearances. Pulled in two directions by the surprisingly redemptive Baz on one side and her shallow and spiteful homeless sister Teresa on the other, Natty’s journey is the major conflict in this subtle state-of-the-nation play, running alongside the more ethereal journey of Clem’s redemption.
Hannan adeptly manages to humanise his godly figures; for all their chatter about divinity, they are as base and helpless as the mortals below. Their insecurities, pomposity and desperation are achingly familiar beneath the comedy that covers the surface of Hannan’s dialogue like a veil. As for the humans, they in turn have ideas far above their station but all of them are brought down to earth with a bump sooner or later.
The grotesquery and colourful language that pervades will not be to everyone’s taste, but this dirty and downtrodden bit of London does resonate. The real problem is that none of the characters are particularly likeable. It is a hard ask to sympathise with Natty’s delusion and self-obsession, and although Clem does have a crisis of conscience of sorts, she just doesn’t fight hard enough at any point to make us feel excited, impassioned or alive. Coupled with Hannan’s frequent deviations into a poeticism that is almost incomprehensible, this is a fierce and larger-than-life look at all that is supposedly “wrong” with society. There is little joy to be found in the hellish hovel of Soho, but it will certainly make you wince and squirm until you find yourself questioning, as Clem does, exactly what is “worth more than sex” these days.