Just Call Me God: A Dictator’s Final Speech is a new play written and directed by Michael Sturminger which premiered in Hamburg in 2017, before embarking on a European tour. It is the third collaborative work between Sturminger and lead actor John Malkovich. Stepping aside from his Hollywood roles, Malkovich appears on stage to portray a fictional crazed dictator, Satur Diman Cha.
When confronted by soldiers and a reporter, Caroline Thomas (Sophie Von Kessel) in a subterranean concert hall within his presidential palace, Diman Cha delivers a series of powerful monologues to the world’s media revealing his deranged nature. These speeches are accompanied by organist Martin Hasselböck‘s improvised classical pieces of music. Just Call Me God‘s narrative revolves around these three characters, with the audience’s focus being directed towards Malkovich’s villainous despot. It is currently available to download on Sky Arts‘ On Demand service for free.
As Just Call Me God is set in a music hall, the setting is effectively reflected by the auditoriums chosen to accommodate the play. It toured concert halls across Europe, making the production’s ambience mightily impressive. This is amplified by the striking set design; with huge banners draped across the venue proudly displaying the emblems of Diman Cha’s totalitarian regime. His own portrait, placed rear stage, looms over the production and gives the impression of an oppressive state, solely led by a tyrannical leader.
As Diman Cha has a passion for classical music, the set matches his character perfectly, but causes problems with acoustics throughout the performance. Diman Cha forces a soldier (Hasselböck) to play the organ at gunpoint, as an accompaniment to his powerful speeches. The acoustics of these venues cause the organ to drown out any dialogue spoken at the same time. Sadly, this makes substantial sections of dialogue become inaudible to the audience. As the majority of the play is dialogue, the organ serves as an unnecessary distraction to being able to fully immerse in Malkovich’s monologues.
It cannot be argued that Malkovich is a hugely accomplished actor. To be able to deliver the sheer amount of dialogue with an impeccable accent is a feat worthy of praise. He also effortlessly manages the volatile nature of Diman Cha’s character; instantaneously switching from violent to humorous, yet remaining likeable. Malkovich excels in dark comedy. However, the script also gives the tyrannical dictator an eccentricity which nudges Diman Cha’s depiction into a caricature-like amalgamation of other familiar tyrants, such as Stalin, Mussolini and Saddam Hussein.
Unfortunately, this destroys the character’s credibility, making him an unbelievably farcical leader, lacking the true malevolence of a ruthless autocrat. In the play, Diman Cha is repeatedly referred to as a “horrific monster“, yet there is little to justify this claim within Just Call Me God. His first lines are from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; “If music be the food of love, play on”.
Likewise, Sophie Von Kessel‘s reporter Caroline Thomas is equally as implausible as a character. She is fundamentally two dimensional and is predictable with her responses to Diman Cha’s blistering tirades. This predictability sadly leaks into the play’s narrative too. There is a supposed twist at the end of the play, which is all too predictable and disappointingly revealed by the play’s title.
In contrast to the predictability of its characters, Just Call Me God is an inventive hybrid between live film and theatre. Caroline’s camera is linked to the television screens that surround the stage. The action and dialogue is therefore dually relayed through the medium of theatre and television. This enhances the ‘Big Brother’ feeling of constant surveillance and scrutiny that is initially imposed by the set design. It is a truly effective technique that gives the play a documentary-like impression, with a heightened sense of realism. This was the finest aspect of the production for me.
Just Call Me God is a production that manages to hit and miss. There are things to like about the play, such as the stage design and inventive use of technology and media. However the overpowering organ music, its predictable narrative and unbelievable characters are problematic. Albeit, this is an entertaining play, which shows how magnificent Malkovich is as a stage actor. As mentioned earlier, it is available for free on Sky Arts on Demand so it is well worth a watch whilst it is still available.