Review

The Trial of God

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Andy Howell & Charlie Watts

It was with some trepidation that I accepted the offer to review The Trial of God at the Little Theatre, having been handed a rather antiquated and uninspiring looking play script. I had never heard of Elie Wiesel before, and the idea of a play within a play, set in a Ukranian village in 1649, putting God on trial for allowing his Children to be massacred, threatened to provide a rather dark, gloomy evening's entertainment full of bitterness and hopelessness.

I scanned the script for clues and discovered that, during his imprisonment as a young boy in Auschwitz in the 1940's, the author had witnessed a 'trial of God' held by respected Jewish scholars within the barracks. At the end of this lengthy and academic trial, God was found guilty of crimes against humankind. The young Wiesel was suddenly confronted by a God, whom he had grown up to love and honour, who could betray His own people. The theme is timeless, and in today's society, where men continue to tear each other apart in the name of religion, we hear ourselves asking: "Why does God allow this; why doesn't God intervene; why all this suffering?" These very questions lie at the heart of this story and they surely speak for people of all races and religions. The motive for the play is compelling and is one with which we can all identify.

Wiesel's 'trial' is set within a Purim play; we have three judges, the witness, the prosecutor and the defence advocate - but there is no defendant and for some considerable amount of time, no one to defend God. Surely, to be a fair trial, the defendant has to take the stand. Or is he represented by the whole of humanity? For, as Sam (the stranger who ultimately offers to act as God's defender) points out, ".. men and women and children were massacred by other men. Why involve, why implicate their Father in Heaven?"

The set, designed by Philip Sheail, represented an inn in a lost village, buried in dust and darkness. The stark furniture and simple props gave the impression if seventeenth-century life, as did the costumes - Shelagh Ryan and Christine Mackinven had certainly done their homework. The position of the tables, benches and bar area made for a very workable set allowing for a variety of configurations including intimate dialogue between two characters, juggling and jestering for the minstrels and the austere trial setting. Good use was made of the space available but perhaps more could have been made of the lighting to suggest dark and threatening shadows and foreboding lurking outside he security of the four walls. It was with the revelation of Sam as Satan, at the end of Act 3, where the lighting, helped by the ominous, specially composed music and sound effects, created an atmosphere full of tension and fear.

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Graham Kilner & Ros Saint Clare

I had been troubled by the presence of Sam, the stranger in the corner, throughout the first two Acts. He was trapped in his chair, allowed only to react with a slight gesture or turn of his head. I, along with the rest of the audience, sensed that he was destined to play a compelling part in the play within the play! It was towards the end of Act 2, with the minstrels (judges) constantly asking for an attorney to step forward as God's defender, that I had to suppress my urge to stand up and shout "Isn't it obvious? What about the man lurking in the corner? Why haven't you noticed him?" The audience breathed a huge sigh of relief when the stranger stood up and offered himself: "Yes. There is someone. I will."

What a tremendous addition to the play the character of Sam made. Played by Chris Janes, he was everything the author had intended: "Intelligent, cynical, extremely courteous. Diabolical…almost elegant. Self-controlled." I ask myself how on earth he managed to sit through two lengthy acts, remain interested in the plot and bring to the third and final act such a professional and convincing contribution. I sensed that the rest of the audience too revelled in Sam's appearance. He held everyone including 9and especially) the mock court in the palm of his hand.

Rosamund Saint-Clare, playing the part of Maria, also gave an excellent performance. I enjoyed her character greatly. I trusted her to keep command of the inn. Her aggressive yet witty nature was handled extremely well, as was her very moving speech about the raping of Hannah - the pain and thee shame became tangible through Maria's words.

It is not difficult to see why Graham Kilner was cast as Berish the innkeeper. Wiesel had imagined a giant of a man, angry and robust. Not only did he have a tremendous amount of dialogue to learn but he also had to sustain great bitterness and anger throughout all three acts. Graham Kilner injected an enormous amount of energy and emotion into his performance, which enabled us to believe in and sympathise with the character of Berish.

Of the three well cast minstrels I really enjoyed Yankel, played by Charlie Watts. His use of gesture and facial expression was superb. I could have coped with more of his frivolity to lighten up the heavy proceedings. Despite a couple of forgotten words here and there, the dialogue continued to flow and the chemistry between the three worked well, with Mendel (Paul Morton) adding his wisdom and Avremel (Andrew Howell) adding a touch of melancholy to the melting pot. Andy Kirtley, as the priest, conveyed a weak, ineffective and anti-Semitic nature announcing that the Christians will be the judges of the Jews, forsaken by God, indicted, no longer His people! Hannah, played by Kate Cooke, gave he impression of being fragile and soiled. She appeared like a ghost and certainly slowed down the very fast pace of the first act which enabled us to draw breath.

I have to congratulate the Company of Players on their interpretation of The Trial of God; I came away troubled that God had been found guilty in His absence but not uncomfortable about the idea that his actions (or inactions) had been called to task. Well done to the cast and production team - you rose to a hefty challenge and made it work!

Susan Coley teaches Speech and Drama at Duncombe School, Bengeo. She also runs a variety of drama workshops at Haileybury College.