States of Shock, Arcola Theatre, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

As the world struggles to cope with the fallout from the second Iraq war, here - courtesy of the Arcola Theatre in Dalston - is a timely revival of States of Shock, a wildly imaginative and antic response to the first Iraq war, written in 1991 by Sam Shepard.

As the world struggles to cope with the fallout from the second Iraq war, here - courtesy of the Arcola Theatre in Dalston - is a timely revival of States of Shock, a wildly imaginative and antic response to the first Iraq war, written in 1991 by Sam Shepard. For anyone seeing it again - some 11 years after its UK premiere and from across the political chasm of 9/11 - the piece now seems to have been conceived with the kind of prescience we associate with Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul.

The latter (completed in 2000) included a distraught intellectual Afghan woman, who was sick of the self- interested shifts in American policy in her country, who predicted that there would be a retaliatory strike on New York. Describing itself as a "vaudeville nightmare", States of Shock goes further. It takes a cartoon-like microcosm of America, the "family" diner, and plunges it into an intuitively alien situation of enemy bombardment. In Nathan Osgood's incisive, balefully comic, in-the-round production, this dislocated atmosphere is intensified by enclosing the iconic eaterie (and the audience) in a battlefield tent. A speech from the waitress, Glory Bee, now stands out, as if in dayglo: "It never occurred to me that 'Danny's' could be invaded. I always thought that we were invulnerable to attack. The landscaping. The lighting. The parking lot. All the pretty bushes. Who could touch us? Who would dare?"

Harry Ditson is brilliantly funny and disturbing as a barmy, bellicose colonel who is clad in a mad ensemble of military dress that ranges from present day back to the American Civil War. commemorate the first anniversary of his son's death in desert crossfire, he wheels into the diner a young vet named Stubbs who has been crippled and rendered impotent by the bullet that passed straight through his body before killing the colonel's boy. Two banana splits with candles stuck in them might strike you as a less than ideally dignified way of marking the occasion, but this is a piece that throws proverbial custard pies at Americana and American pieties - an impression reinforced by the presence of a West Palm Beach-style couple who fume at the thought of being queue-jumped by the vets. "We could be buying things, even as we speak," she spits.

At first, the colonel's deranged vertical take-offs into barking defence of US imperialism look like an attempt to evade the idea that his son may have been killed in friendly fire. Then you begin to suspect that he invented that young man's death and that it is Stubbs who is his offspring, brainwashed into believing the false scenario because the colonel cannot face the Abraham-and-Isaac implications found in all wars.

"I miss the Cold War with all my heart," reveals the waitress at one point. You wonder how she is now enjoying the war on terror. The poet Shelley said that art should help us to imagine what we know. Free-wheeling yet diabolically focused, States of Shock carries out this brief with style, in contrast to David Edgar's current Continental Divide, a two-play bore about American politics that manages to convert what we have imagined back into what we merely know. An object lesson in failing to capture the feel of the contemporary. Let's hope that Sam Shepard hits us in the near future with a dramatic response to the world according to Bush and Blair.

To 17 April (020-7503 1646)

Comments