It’s about time we sat down to have a chat with the gods; we’d have a lot of questions to ask. Where have they been when we’ve needed them most? Why did they disappear on us, when there was still so much work left to do? But then, what would Poseidon do when we told him we’d been warming up all his oceans and melting his arctic ice shelves? Would Shiva, destroyer of the world, commend us for the deep scars we’ve left in the earth, the forests we’ve razed and cities we’ve built? How would Allah respond to the acts of terror committed in his name?
These are the kinds of questions James McCaughey—director, writer and star of his solo show, Conversations with the Gods about their Deaths and Other Matters—asked on Wednesday night at Fortyfivedownstairs, in Program One of his two-part play. In the play, McCaughey has called for a meeting with gods from various religions all around the world. Attendees include gods of the Hindu religion, the ancient Greeks, and the singular deities of Islam and Judaism. The idea sounds expensive—how would you dress up such a setting for the divine council? What elaborate costumes would portray Apollo’s divine grace, or Yahweh’s omnipotence? In true minimalist style, James is the sole player on the stage; the gods are physically absent, evoked by McCaughey’s wordy script and responsive movements.
Before the play starts, four dining room-style chairs, arranged by Damien Wright, sit atop the carpeted stage in the centre, facing each other. It resembles an intervention set up: close, but too formal to be intimate. The audience is spread in a horseshoe formation around the little stage—we’re like council members observing a debate. Rachel Bourke’s lighting is a bright yellow, creating a stark setting.
McCaughey strides up to the stage casually dressed in a black suit jacket and brown corduroys, and says he wants a “word” with the gods. Instantly, with his warm persona and oratorical speech, he fills the void left by the bare stage. Each god is introduced with a wave of his hand and brief introduction: Apollo the archer god of light, Jesus who was forsaken by his father, Yahweh, who presided over Abraham as he had his “knife poised at Isaac’s throat” and Prometheus, who suffers “eternal blame in gender studies classes.” McCaughey has a real knack for wry humour. He pokes fun at how seriously we take our gods, and in turn how they cannot laugh at themselves. As he introduces them it’s as if they’re walking up to the stage, turning and leaving again like models on a catwalk, but they could be flying in on magic carpets and vanishing from thin air. This is the unique effect of Conversations—with no other actors, nor fancy costumes or special effects, the imagination soars along with our charismatic narrator.
That said, things got convoluted at times. With no linear narrative, the script is a series of stories from various theological texts interspersed with real-world events. For anyone lacking a universal knowledge of theology, the meanings of the stories are sometimes hard to grasp, even if they are evoked well. As characters come and go it can be difficult to remember who’s sitting where and next to whom, especially when McCaughey appears to be following each train of thought on a whim. It’s reminiscent of the ancient Middle Eastern text, The Arabian Nights, wherein the stories become most enjoyable when you let yourself go and enjoy the magic of the storytelling.
The play is at its best when McCaughey blends our world and the one he’s created. After finishing a vivid recount of the forced famine under Stalin’s regime, McCaughey warns the gods. He tells them they might be here to “hold these things to account” and pay for their actions. Police officers and helicopters could be swarming outside to arrest the divine figures, he says. After waiting for a response, he chuckles. As expected, they “exercise their right to silence,” he tells us. Mulling over the Queensland coalmines with “enough coal to tilt the earth”, he asks his guests if we’re in a comedy or a tragedy. Building a railway that terminates at “Abbott’s point”. Is this not a comedy?
The play becomes more grounded in its second half, when the chairs are turned to face the audience and James begins a toast to the gods. Instead of a motley mix of swapping deities, McCaughey has a set cast of imaginary counterparts: Shiva, Yahweh, Allah—who arrives late and makes everybody nervous—and Apollo. Instead of saying a few kind words McCaughey takes the opportunity to criticise the immortal beings. Shiva, for his affair with Shakti, is likened to Nicolas Sarkozky; Yahweh is called an “ongoing project” and Allah is told to stop bickering with Yahweh. I would have liked to see McCaughey taking bigger swings at the gods, asking them where they’ve been during more recent atrocities or pressing them about climate change, which he hardly mentioned. There was a heavy focus on theology and storytelling, but the play was at its most daring when it clashed with what’s going on in the real world. It was timid of McCaughey not to press this further, instead opting for subtle winks and nudges to the audience as he asked the gods to “sack the current Federal Minister for the Arts.”
James McCaughey’s Conversations with the Gods about their Deaths and Other Matters: Program One, is a unique and imaginative take on the one-man show style. It’s held up by a mesmerising script and skilled orator, and complimented by the minimal lighting and Wright’s unassuming chairs. While McCaughey could have delved deeper and got under the skin of his theological guests, his inquiry was intriguing enough to spark conversation and to have us consider our spiritual roots. It’s a conversation worth having.