God/Head, Ovalhouse

If I approach this review in the same way as Chris Goode has attempted to approach his latest show, from a position of total honesty, writing about God/Head presents intrinsic difficulties. As a piece of theatre it is fluid and slippery; resisting a firm grasp, sliding off in different directions, eschewing the “very Radio 4” journey narrative that Goode says he originally thought he would create. Slippery and elusive too are the thoughts that it provokes, darting off in several directions at once as Goode demands us to “link it up”. It is – in as far from negative a way as possible – messy.

It is this very messiness, however, that fits Goode’s subject matter so well, as he is handling perhaps the messiest thing that any of us ever have to grapple with: belief. The catalyst for this intimate and fascinating piece of theatre was an experience that Goode encountered on an otherwise ordinary day – 21st April 2011, to be exact, as he continually reminds us – while walking home from the supermarket. Suddenly, shopping bags in hand and headphones in his ears, committed atheist Goode became aware of something that he had never felt before. Suddenly, there was God.

Over the following hour and a half, Goode attempts to unpick this troubling experience, inevitably getting ever more tangled in the process. It is an extraordinarily brave attempt, laying its performer bare – it is not for nothing that the idea of nakedness is a recurring motif. As he invites us into his world, Goode exudes warmth, slowly enveloping us in his candid storytelling. This show, it transpires, is about questions rather than answers and about uncertainty rather than certainty. In a world which so often seems to be a contest of who can shout their certainty loudest, such unapologetic doubt is refreshing. Goode also reveals, almost as a side effect, that atheism can be just as inflexible as religion. Whether an advocate of belief or disbelief, how can we all be so sure?

As has already been explained, this is not a journey, and there is no real logic to how Goode’s show progresses. Each night he invites a guest to join him (Greg McLaren on the night I attended), whose own experiences of religion and belief also inform the piece, as well as providing a second presence on stage for Goode to bounce off of and to take on roles in some of the piece’s short scenes. Goode’s technique – although technique itself seems the wrong word – is part storytelling, part dream sequence, part conversation and part sketch, with a good few more elements also thrown into the mix. Appropriately, this piece defies structure and genre.

There are undoubtedly flaws in the evening of theatre that Goode has produced from this probing of his own experience, but that seems almost to be the point. Uncertainty and even distrust in what Goode himself is telling us are actively encouraged at every turn. The sound and lighting deck has been moved into the performance space to, as Goode says with a chuckled Brechtian reference, remind us that what we are watching is a play. The story of his encounter with God is repeated several times over, each time adding details that throw it into doubt: at the time he was listening to a self-help guru who spoke about God, and he had been reading the Bible for a show he was writing.

Artifice and the craft of theatre itself become part of the investigation as the piece goes on. Goode was concerned that by creating a show about his experience he would lose something of it, a possibility that arises through the repeated tellings of his story in this one evening alone. By retelling and retelling the experience, Goode highlights the fallibility of our own experience, something that is compounded by the input of neuroscience and Goode’s own struggles with depression. In another intriguing part of the show, Goode stages a conversation with one of his fictional creations, raising complex and troubling questions about the nature of creating and of power.

Despite this supposedly being a review, I am drawn irresistibly towards the same uncertainty expressed by Goode. It feels almost inappropriate and slightly arrogant to proffer a value judgement on such a subjective experience, both for Goode and his audience members. All theatre is of course different each night, however slightly, but with God/Head there is a true sense that no two performances are the same, not least because of the chopping and changing of guests. Watching this show will also be a different and intensely personal experience for every individual who goes to see it, refracted through their own belief systems and their openness or otherwise to the ideas that Goode is introducing.

But for me at least, the beauty of this strangely captivating and deeply thought-provoking piece is that, in its messiness, it also allows each of us to have our own confrontation with faith and what that might mean for us. As Goode warns his audience, it’s not easy, but as Goode also recognises, it’s usually the difficult ideas that are the ones worth sticking at.