Avengers: Endgame is about to hit cinemas. Big hype. As much as I always have fun watching them, though, superhero movies confuse me in one particular way: their need for incrementally bigger and more-impossible-to-defeat monsters; battles on a scale that becomes difficult to comprehend, as if the writers were trapped in a vicious cycle of self-one-upmanship. These impossibly powerful monsters must always be – impossibly – defeated. The underdog heroes always win out, defying all physical logic and statistical probability.
I wonder why Marvel movies have been the ones to best capitalise on our escapist impulses in recent years. We long, perhaps, to believe that monsters can be defeated by a small group of gifted individuals ordained with moral conviction, because we, the little ant-people running for our lives in the wrecked cityscapes, believe ourselves to be powerless. ‘Heroes: it’s an old-fashioned notion,’ opens the Endgame trailer.
Inua Ellams’ new play, The Half God of Rainfall, is, of course, a less high-octane affair than Avengers, but it’s also an epic myth about overcoming an impossible villain. Here, it’s an old god, Zeus – a tyrannical and toxic figure. He wins a sporting bet with Ṣàngó, the Yoruba god of thunder, lightning and justice, and rapes a mortal Nigerian woman, Modupe (Rakie Ayola), as his prize. Recounted early in the play, this trauma weighs heavy in the writing, just as it invades every aspect of Modupe’s life. Her son, Demi (Kwami Odoom), is born a half-god, unaware at first of his origins. As a child Demi’s tantrum tears turn basketball courts to mud, but he quickly discovers his gift as a sportsman. He’s soon playing in the London Olympics, whilst pursuing a parallel quest to find Zeus and avenge his mother.
The play is actually a poem, and the verse’s lyricism gives it the feel of a dark, epic bedtime story. It plays out on Max John’s expansive set, looking like some ruined, damp, celestial cavern with a cracked, reflective black platform and a proscenium arch of faded gold (presumably modelled after Kiln Theatre’s and reproduced here in Birmingham REP’s studio). Light, when reflecting onto the white cyclorama at the back, casts water-like patterns. Odoom and Ayola fill this space with big, hearty performances, storytellers with an urgent tale to tell. Pockets of bathetic humour prick the text’s weighty import – best is a roll-call of famous basketball players, all secretly half-gods too (they have to give up their careers after Michael Jordan pulls an arrogant airborne stunt on live TV, which his dad cleans up for him with a spot of memory-wiping).
Ellams’ main subject here is power. The power of abusive men who never face justice, of those whose fame is a get-out-of-jail-free card, of those who make sport of others’ lives, and the power more generally of systems and games which seem impossible to win. As Demi’s childhood friends put on not-quite-right American accents, I think, too, of the secret, far-reaching tendrils of American neocolonialism, and the sexiness of Western capitalism. I imagine those same kids playing with a plastic Captain America shield, unaware of a bigger game at play.
Then comes the showdown – the impossible battle – and the story takes an unexpected turn. Demi (spoilers ahead), faces Zeus and is killed, just like that. It comes abruptly, without fanfare. It isn’t the half-god hero who saves the day, but the mortal mother, Modupe, who finally avenges her son and herself. Physically, logically, I’m not totally sure how, but this is symbolic: an impassioned plea for those without power to imagine themselves not as fleeing ant-people, but as dignified subjects with the agency to rise up and meet the power of tyrants. In this sense, I maybe wish there was more of an emphasis on collective organisation as opposed to the singular quest of the individual, but nevertheless, the play’s sentiment is a powerful one. The best way to win a game, says Modupe, is to ‘play with love, play with pain.’ In The Half God of Rainfall, there’s plenty of both on display.
The Half God of Rainfall runs until 20th April at Birmingham REP, then transfers to Kiln Theatre in London from 25 April – 17 May.