Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: God/Head, Ovalhouse Theatre

Review: God/Head, Ovalhouse Theatre

On the 21st April 2011, Chris Goode was walking home from the supermarket, carrying three shopping bags in two hands, listening to his iPod and thinking about another show, when, all of a sudden, he became absolutely conscious of God’s existence. He felt it at the top of his chest and he felt it just to the right of his heart. That patch of London pavement became his very own Damascan roadside.

“Nothing was more real or more vivid,” he explains, calmly, rationally, convincingly, “than God In whom, I don’t believe.”

God/Head, perfectly titled as it is, is Goode’s attempt to explore the implications of that moment, not just in terms of his own belief or non-belief, but expanding beyond the personal and into the abstract. The main thrust is about certainty and uncertainty. Goode has not converted, but has instead found cause to question his initial scepticism; to doubt his original doubt, as it were. Atheism has flicked into agnosticism. He wants to be able to talk like Iyanla Vanzant, a pro- inspirational speaker, but he hasn’t the heartfelt conviction. And that’s fine, isn’t it?

Formally, God/Head is a patchwork of texts that illuminate his experience and subsequent exploration of it. He’s also joined onstage by a guest. Not a guest performer. Just a guest. Like on Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross, only without the artifice or promotional intentions. This inserts an element of uncertainty into the event itself – partly through an unscripted voice, partly by granting control to an uninformed party. (Goode provides instructions in sealed envelopes, passing the reins to the guest.)

This, however, is not developed fully enough. It never threatens to derail the event – a key component of genuine risk – since the whole is content with its own informality and looseness. That, perhaps, is the point: that we must learn to tolerate and accommodate uncertainty as God/Head’s structure manages. What was intended to become a journey-style narrative, “all very Radio 4,” has proved too messy, full of blurred intangibility and loose ends.

However, I feel Goode has not fully cracked the form, and God/Head mostly reminded me of parodies of self-indulgent off-Broadway solo shows, in which a performer relates and over-philosophises a seminal personal experience to the point of losing his or her audience. (Those familiar with his work know Goode’s far smarter than that, so, in the spirit of honesty, I’ll admit to nervousness about voicing the thought.) He tells us early on that this is not about his experience being more important than any of ours, but – for me – that caveat doesn’t ring true enough. It felt a disclaimer, tacked on and intended as a get-around for a show that kind of goes on to do just that.

In fact, there’s an element of manipulation in God/Head that seems curiously unlike Goode’s usual practice. Recounting his experience, he seems to – at some level – act it out, or rather relive it in some way, and it rings a bit forced.

Nonetheless, there is some deeply fascinating content and some beautifully-sculpted articulations along the way. Not least Goode’s connection with his ‘religious’ experience and his previous experiences of depression, which questions whether both can be explained away in equal physiological terms. A conversation with an academic, restaged with his guest, raises the possibility of its being “a neurochemical experience” that was interpreted in such a way as a result of suggestibility; he had been reading the King James Bible for another show, after all, and it’s conceivable that the music in his ears had a hypnotic or numinous effect.

Yet, for all this rational explanation, which might once have satisfied Goode the atheist, it’s no longer quite sufficient. He speaks of wanting to believe – of really wanting to believe, to really believe – despite being unable to do so entirely. It’s this note of failure in the face of desire that he picks up to end, by playing a final – beautiful, haunting, resonant – recording of My Sweet Lord over an empty stage.

Photograph: Malcolm Phillips

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