I had no idea what to expect as I sat down to watch the play hailed as ‘Sesame Street meets the exorcist’ last month, and to be honest, I’m still not quite sure what to make of Hand to God.
Robert Askins’ Broadway hit features Jason, a gawky teenager and his church puppet group. His recently bereaved mother Margery, who runs the group, does so because she ‘can’t sing, preach or bake brownies.’ Inspiring young people is a welcome distraction and a helpful coping mechanism, which morphs into an awful mistake as her confused feelings lead to a disturbing affair with bad-boy teenager Timothy.
The play assumes a terrifying twist when Jason’s hand puppet, Tyrone takes on a life of his own, announcing that he is possessed by the devil and wreaking havoc on the group. Jason is simultaneously liberated and tormented by his puppet and this battle culminates in a literal bloody mess as Jason forcibly removes Tyrone in a moment reminiscent of the biblical mandate to cut off an offending hand (Matthew 5).
So compelling is Harry Melling’s performance that it’s easy to forget you are watching one actor, playing both puppet and puppet master, which of course is intentional: within one teenager lies a propensity for both good and evil – the line is blurred and the two natures irrevocably intertwined. Again, a glaring biblical comparison springs to mind, ‘what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’ (Romans 7)
The affair between Margery and Timothy, while deeply alarming, is at times darkly comical but, as one commentator notes, it would not be at all amusing if genders were reversed. The troubling nature of both the affair itself and its violent outworking demonstrates the depth of Margery’s despair and the danger of her unaddressed grief. At one point, Margery rips pages out of Pastor Greig’s bible, cursing and swearing at God as she does so. It is a disturbing scene, evidenced by the audience’s collective gasp but it doesn’t feel gratuitous or blasphemous. Rather, it is the reaction of a grief-stricken woman at the end of herself.
Hand to God has been labelled ‘profoundly irreligious’, ‘heretical’, and ‘blasphemous’ but I don’t think this is either the case or its intention
At times, religion felt like a periphery issue; providing merely a setting rather than an integral element of the story. However, the prologue and epilogue set it within a clear agnostic framework, aggressively suggesting that God and the devil are manmade constructs. A strict religious upbringing clearly informed the play, which is strangely biographical.
Hand to God has been labelled ‘profoundly irreligious’, ‘heretical’, and ‘blasphemous’ but I don’t think this is either the case or its intention. The play is best avoided if you are easily offended (and beware, there is a protracted puppet sex scene at one point!) but dark comedies like this one are often incredibly thought-provoking.
There’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy and there were times when I simultaneously found myself laughing and squirming, reflecting on why I had done so. One such reason was that it implicitly exposed the weaknesses of the Church. In interviews, writer Robert Askins has spoken about his experience of bereavement and of feeling alienated by his childhood church and some of this pain seems to have written itself into the play.
Hand to God should serve as a stark reminder to Christians of how to react in the face of grief. Margery and Jason should have been better supported by their church; they should have been loved, comforted and prayed for. It is also a prompt to churches to properly support their youth and children’s workers, putting clear boundaries in place to protect both them and their young people.
What Hand to God does do however, is grossly misunderstand and misrepresent the character of God. There is no understanding of a loving God who welcomes doubt and seeks to bring peace to a tortured soul. Here, the only solution is either violent exorcism or to take matters into your own hands, chopping away unwanted character traits.
There is also little recognition of a forgiving God – Askins instead awards that accolade to the human characters within the play who are reconciled largely through their forgiveness. Nor is there any acknowledgement of a God who liberates – in Hand to God, it is only rebellion which brings such sought after freedom. It is little wonder that the play is framed within such an a-religious worldview if Askins’ tyrant god is the alternative – I wouldn’t believe in that god either!