Naomi Simpson reviews Michael Sturminger’s powerful and frighteningly thought-provoking play, performed at the Symphony Hall
Attempting to describe the performance which took place on Tuesday the 21st of March at the Birmingham Symphony Hall is proving exceptionally difficult. Of course, the best theatre leaves you with more questions than answers and perhaps a new perspective if you’re lucky, but rarely does a play ask quite as many questions with quite such an intensity as Michael Sturminger’s Just Call Me God: A Dictator’s Final Speech. Exploring power, performance, meta-theatre, gender roles, sexual violence, technology and dictatorship in a tempestuous 90-minute performance, the play served up a feast of modern-day anxieties with a side of wit, leaving the audience craving more right through to the standing ovation.
The action centres around the character of Satur Diman Cha, a deluded despot with illusions of grandeur, profoundly violent tendencies and diamond shoes played by John Malkovich. Satur is styled to reflect all the extravagance we have come to expect from despotic rulers, but the production makes it almost painfully clear just how exaggerated, self-created and totally false this performance of power is. Highlighting the idea of power as a performance, the play itself is set in a grand concert hall, supposedly built under the desert to celebrate Satur’s rule. The play begins with a dark stage, the only action beamed out from two large hanging screens showing footage of a troop of soldiers being filmed as they progress through a dark building. In a bold move which allows technology to blend with live performance, the soldiers suddenly appear in the concert hall before the audience, while the image of them on the screens continues. The presence of the live recording is constant throughout the play and at its most powerful it is used to show Satur’s face becoming increasingly distorted by pixilation as he reveals how power has come to him and unwillingly alludes to its slipping through his grasp.
The surreal Satur is balanced by the truly phenomenal character of Caroline Thomas, a photojournalist for an American news channel who accompanied the soldiers in order to document the demise of Satur and with the secret hope of gaining interview rights with him. Sophie von Kessel produces an inspiring performance of a professional under immense pressure, a woman who is able to think her way out of being trapped in a room at gunpoint by a dictator. Von Kessel’s performance is highly provocative in its exploration of the role of the press; in one particularly poignant moment, Satur demands that she state how she has helped the world and why being a journalist is valuable, while he claims that even her camera is not neutral but is actually a tool of propaganda and therefore inherently weapon-like. And if you were under any illusion that the discussion of the value of the media was only coincidentally topical, it may interest you to know that the phrase ‘fake news’ caused a certain stir within the audience.
As visually impressive as the set design was, with its many insignia-laden banners, flags and one monstrously large portrait of Satur in military dress and sunglasses (a clear nod to the journalistic documentation of real-life modern dictators), perhaps the most dynamic part of the performance was its sound design. The Symphony Hall’s organ provided the background for the action but was brought to the foreground as Satur forced one of the soldiers to accompany his eponymous final speech with organ music. Clashing, crescendo-ridden and eerily religious, the organ music picked up on the broken and distorted English delivered so convincingly by Malkovich (whose voice really is as incredibly flexible live as it seems on-screen) to create an audio display of power as terrifying as the visual display.
Just Call Me God was not an easy play to watch or write about. Complex, provocative and wittily terrifying, it was a masterclass in how much can physically be done on stage. At the core of its power to impress, however, was the sense that this hyper-reality is actually not so distant from the reality of modern-day dictatorships; the camera which spun round to take in glimpses of the audience made it all too clear that we are part of this narrative as well.