Review: The Gods Weep, RSC at Hampstead Theatre

“I feel like my soul has been bathed in acid”

You know there is a problem when a phrase like the above resonates strongly with you during a play… After a successful take on events post-Macbeth in Dunsinane comes Dennis Kelly’s The Gods Weep which is very heavily inspired by Kurosawa’s film Ran, which was in turn was influenced by King Lear. Admittedly this was a first preview, but at close to four hours long, and full of chaotic fighting, much blood, dead cats and squirrels and an inordinate amount of swearing, this had the amazing effect of making me actually want to watch paint dry instead: it’s not only the gods who will be weeping by the end of this run.

Replacing the feudal kingdoms of Lear/Ran with its modern-day equivalent, a multi-national corporation, the CEO Colm decides that after a lifetime of building an empire through brutal and savage means, it is time to relinquish power to his two subordinates. However in doing so, he unleashes a bloody power struggle between the two rivals with truly devastating consequences and ramifications which force Colm to face up to a lifetime of questionable decisions.
The action progresses through three distinct long sections: shifting from corporate boardroom machinations, to outright civil war, to post-apocalyptic wilderness survival, but the lurches from one to the other are clumsily handled. The idea of boardroom battles escalating and becoming a real war is an intriguing one which has some currency in today’s corporate world, but is obfuscated by silly love stories and an underdeveloped mystical thread involving business astrology and a crazy peach eating lady. The shift from boardroom to battlefield is arresting, featuring an onstage breaking of an arm, but the post-war move into survivalist territory comes far too late, is a tonal shift out of keeping with anything else we’ve seen and was played in something approaching slow motion. Most unfortunately, this final act has the effect of rendering the previous two somewhat inconsequential, which given we’ve spent nearly three hours watching it by this point is beyond my comprehension.

For too long and on too many occasions, it really isn’t clear what is happening, or indeed why: my note book was filled with questions by the end, but I won’t mention them in case you do decide to go and put yourself through this, just prepare to be frequently baffled. I’d no sense of how much time had passed at any point either. The writing is unimaginative, mistaking repeated profanity for actual character, and Colm aside, there’s little attempt to delve into the motivation in any of the leads.

And with such perplexingly drawn characters, I had a real sense of frustration at the waste of acting talent on stage. Helen Schlesinger starts off as a fierce businesswoman nearly at the top of her profession yet she’s disappointingly reduced to acting like a lovesick teenager; John Stahl as Castile, Colm’s right-hand-man is given little to do except pop in and out of scenes; Karen Archer has nothing but mystical pronouncements with no depth to her ‘business astrologer’, whatever one of those is. Joanna Horton deserves some kind of award for gamely ploughing through the final torturous survivalist act with conviction, although she may need to work on her tent-erecting skills. And Jeremy Irons is alright, but I cared so little for Colm or what happened to him, that I was unable to really appreciate his acting.

Even the set feels wrong here. A 25 foot tree stands in a raised gravel pit, which people constantly found it hard to traverse; a big boardroom table in front for the first act and a bed on a little raised bit off to the side are the only other things used, it just looks cheap. Elsewhere production values are higher: smart suits help the first scene, the fight scenes are brutally realistic and there’s buckets of stage blood used in often gorily effective ways.

An early draft of this play was apparently over 5 hours, so getting it under four hours clearly seemed like an achievement to them, but much much more needs to be cut and tightened up to make it a manageable evening. Perhaps I need to stop going to early previews, but for me though, The Gods Weep is fundamentally flawed, and I suspect beyond rescue.

Running time: 3 hours 45 minutes (with 1 interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50
Note: there’s repeated loud noises, violence and swearing throughout, so possibly not for the faint of heart

8 thoughts on “Review: The Gods Weep, RSC at Hampstead Theatre

  1. I was there too!! You were very brave to stay the course as I left at the interval. You could feel the disappointment in the audience as clunk after clink happened.

    A very dispiriting experience and a waste of good actors. Went to to both very enjoyable 90 minute plays at the Royal Court yesterday and had my faith in the power of theatre restored

  2. It got so much worse after the interval as well, I envy your escape!

    I wanted to be more constructive, but I really can't see how they can make it better…

  3. Yesterday – 16th March – the play ended just around 10h20pm, so much shorter than the 4 hours you mention… I guess they must be tweaking the script…

    Jeremy Irons was alright, but most of the rest was very weak…

  4. I really wish I had left the interval, agree on how very disappointing it was. Dunsinane was so much better, and i had booked this with the idea it might be of similar quality. I was ill but decided to leave the house for this, bad choice. I will need to go to the Royal court again too!

  5. Always a bad idea to go to previews and then review. I went on press night (17th March) and the play was 3 hours including interval. I thought it was fantastic, perfectly cast with challenging subject matter which got our tongues wagging way all the way home.

  6. Funny how these comments about not discussing previews never appear when it is a positive review…!

    Anonymous #1 and #2 (have some guts, identify yourselves!), I don't really see what the problem is. If the RSC or Hampstead Theatre wants to give me a press night ticket then I'd gladly welcome it, but I'm not press, I'm just a regular paying theatregoer.

    And as such I believe I'm entitled to my opinion on what I've seen. I've clearly indicated that this was a preview that I saw, and in any case if you've read the review, you'll see that the issues I had were structural and about the play itself, not the performances, so had I seen it later in the run, it would be practically the same review, albeit with a shorter running time.

    As I discussed recently with a friend, the mere fact that this play was originally five hours long and Dennis Kelly did not see an issue in this, is indicative of the problems faced by this production. But this is just my opinion, and personally I'm glad that others are getting pleasure from this play.

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