[The following contains spoilers.]
If you have somehow stepped clean over the first spoiler warning without seeing it, it is worth chucking down a second: the following contains spoilers. All of Tychy’s reviews are intended for post-theatre contemplation rather than for the tawdrier business of deciding on a future ticket purchase. Sweet Productions’ “Father of Lies” creates an unavoidable dilemma for the reviewer, since even describing this fragile show accurately is liable to damage it. Run with the show’s own description of itself and you will look credulous. Write about it honestly and you will come across as a spoilsport. I am generally happier being thought of as a bastard than as a fool, so I am plumping for the second option.
The Father of Lies is you-know-who. This play was around at last year’s Fringe, with its original writers Sasha Roberts and Tom Worsley as the performers. Today the venue is Sweet Novotel and Steve Griffin and Nathan Jones are presenting the piece. A slide projector has been set up in a room that is roughly the size of a minibus interior. We are about to delve into true story of Father Anselm Neumann, a priest who had been convicted of murder in 1973 in the Bavarian city of Würzburg. You-know-who might have had a small hand in the bloodletting.
The show begins with some relaxed chat between the two performers and the audience. We are asked whether or not we believe in God, the Devil, witches, and ghosts. Those who reply in the affirmative are asked whether they have ever had any personal experience of the latter two. Between us, we manage to come up with enough material to satisfy the performers. This exercise appears to prepare us for the theatrical scenes that follow, in dividing us into believers and non-believers. It is as though we are being assigned to separate teams to support the two rival combatants. Griffin plays Neumann, who is adamant that he is being haunted by his wife, after she had died giving birth to their son Gebhard. Jones plays Neumann’s crony Kirt, who is adamant that the ghosts are hallucinations. As ever, belief is the unstoppable force and scepticism the immovable object.
“Father of Lies” gradually takes Neumann’s side, in insinuating that the Devil had manipulated him into the murders. Looking back over the play’s events, I realise that sceptics such as myself have been marginalised from the outset. Our opinions were never solicited during the preface and this disavowing of important interpretative tools is, I tell myself pompously, why the performers have consequently erred. I reason away the ghosts by deciding that Neumann had displayed all of the tell-tale symptoms of paranoia schizophrenia. The performers also make much of the disappearance of the baby Gebhard’s bloodied body, which was temporarily abandoned outdoors in a pram, but surely that old culprit, mister fox, was most likely responsible? Why, I splutter, is this never entertained as an explanation?
My mistake here is to assume that Neumann was a real person and that this is a true crime story. My scepticism has been tested and proven to be altogether too shallow. The personable exercise that precedes the dramatic scenes, in which the performers chat humorously and intimately about their own beliefs, allows them to smuggle the truly dishonest part of their story past us. The Satanism is really just a gaudy decoy to divert us from the fact that their stance as researchers and historians is totally bogus. All of their helpful slides are deeply dubious. The lies are absolute – the nice gold frame is as fake as the painting.
Griffin and Jones are nothing more than hired cabaret magicians. The featured photograph of Neumann’s Jewish wife Abigail is actually that of Anneliese Michel, a German Catholic and sufferer of epileptic psychosis who had died in 1976 after being calamitously subjected to exorcism rites. There are probably similar in-jokes with the supposed photographs of Neumann and Kirt (which I would love it if someone could identify for me in the comments). Neumann is thus a newly coined man, and as proper a subject for a documentary as the Blair Witch or the Polybius arcade game.
Naturally, “Father of Lies” cannot be a theatrical hoax and an exciting supernatural drama in the same breath. Everything Satanic has to be an uncorroborated hallucination, else the audience get suspicious as to why they have never heard such a remarkable story before. The only occasion when Neumann’s visions can be put to the test arrives during an extremely spooky moment midway through the story. The priest is conversing with Kirt in the doorway of his home when he suddenly reveals that the spirit of his dead wife is “here,” sitting inside. Kirt, who himself has some history with Abigail, ventures tentatively in. Yet he is turned around at once and ushered out of this promising cinematic horror scenario, back into the hoax.