Following the National’s production of Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution, with its complicated stage machinery, it is something of a renewed pleasure to see an unperformed Barker play in his natural habitat: close up, in a small and intimate theatre with an austere staging.
Lot and His God is a confrontation with – and radical reinterpretation of – the story from the book of Genesis, in which – after deciding to visit total destruction upon the sinful inhabitants of Sodom – God nonetheless felt obliged to save the pious Lot and his family. He sent angels equipped with destructive power to warn them to flee the city. However in fleeing, Lot’s nameless wife looked back at the city she had lived in and was turned into a pillar of salt for this act of insubordination.
Barker’s play focuses upon Lot’s wife, whom he names Sverdlosk and the very act of human disobedience against a vengeful God’s wrath, which Barker in a programme note sees as a backwards glance borne from regretful nostalgia for her life in Sodom. ‘On contemplating this reckless look, I could only think it exquisitely justified: she dies in preference to obeying the order to move. What’s more, her life as I conceived it, is something superior to morality –a work of art …’
Designer Fotini Dimou’s set is simple but effective – a painted backdrop, a few dusty chairs and tables – and the story which unfolds is powerfully told and uncanny, a story of passionate desire. There is an almost love triangle between Sverdlosk, the angel Drogheda, and Lot – with Barker drawing on the Biblical Apocrypha and particularly the stories of the angels who fell in sexual love with human women from the Books of Enoch as part of Barker’s story of battle with an implacable God’s design.
There are stunning performances from the actors. Hermione Gulliford, as Sverdlosk, is clothed in a matching red suit, hat and high heels and is always precise and meaningful with her gestures and movements. She is the continually unfaithful wife (licensed by Lot), who desires the angel, Drogheda. Gulliford, in her strong performance, creates a fine balance between being the erotic centre of the play and the figure of a seductress as well as being a strong, purposeful, self-determining woman who is steadfastly in love with the husband she physically betrays, again and again.
Justin Avoth’s superb Drogheda, is a suitably unnerving, unearthly angel who in encountering Sverdlosk confronts a paradoxical humanity he begins to discover. In losing his temper at surly service in the filthy café where all three characters rendezvous he can strike the waiters blind, deaf and dumb (in Genesis this power is reserved to use against the inhabitants of Sodom who threaten the angels with rape). Yet while merciless when it comes to poor service, in falling for Sverdlosk and after having sex with her in Lot’s library (which he also burns in a fit of pique), Drogheda can show enough mercy and tender humanity to suggest to her that they run away to another land, although he knows God has already planned her death. Like Yeat’s Leda (though this is consensual sex), she learns terrible foreknowledge from her physical possession by the angel.
Mark Tandy’s passionate, but rarefied Lot is a scholar with a library of note, dutiful to God, but also a man of much compassion (pitying and trying to help Vincent Enderby’s nameless waiter in his suffering, after he is punished by the angel). Lot gains sublime pleasure from fantasising his wife’s infidelities with strangers: if there is agape in this play (the love that dispossesses the lover’s self), then it centres in human fashion on the sexual, incarnate love of a husband for the wife, and not love for the Almighty. Tandy does a fine job of conveying this complex character, one whom Drogheda calls: ‘a man more sensitive than God thought men could be’.
Barker has created here both an intense human drama which is psychologically rich and also a biting allegory of facing up to the inhuman contingency of the universe, which some like to interpret as God’s will, morality imposed from on high. When God speaks to Lot through the dumb-struck waiter, He ends up crying; perhaps His purpose towards his suffering creation is dark and inexplicable even to himself with all His power? Unlike Nietzsche’s Zarathusra’s injunction that ‘God is dead’: the world of the play seems animated by the fear that in abolishing God as first cause, the risk is run of a stolid reification of humanism, in which others will try to take on that same transcendental authority. Lot will finally leave Sodom to its fate and brave Sverdlosk knows she will not survive the journey, but in their humanity, passion and desire lie tragedy: a tragedy of determined, if impossible resistance to God and his unknowable intentions.