Simon Kane’s solo performance piece Jonah Non Grata is a remarkable little show. Taking as its starting point the Biblical story of Jonah it creates an abstract impression of the narrative using diverse elements from a Choose Your Own Adventure book to a bunch of mad little songs.
The show stars with the audience packed into a tiny concrete cell close to the entrance of the Shunt Vaults. Kane makes his entrance zipped inside a laundry bag, shuffles and rolls into the space, and disentangles himself to the sounds of ukuleles playing O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
Kane is an enormously engaging presence - friendly but with enough edge to keep one slightly uncomfortable. He makes a convincing modern vision of a Biblical prophet, which is essentially the ‘character’ he is ‘playing’ here.
“I am a double act. Half of that act is me who tonight will be played by us.” he tells us. It’s pretty clear that the implied other half is God. The brilliance of this first section is the way in which it reminds us of the Sunday School God of whom many of us have a basic recollection, but here viewed through a prism which, while never naming its subject, deconstructs it through a series of absurd devices until one is left with a sense of the absolute strangeness of the idea of a God, what we are told about Him, and the what we do with the information. At one stage we all rise to sing along with a hymn, which includes the following verses:
O dust. O might. O Trilobite,
Come wash my senses black and white
For my senses are all cut down.
Surround me with three thousand spears
Evolve big death rays from my ears
So no bitches can do me in.
It gets exactly to the heart of what all hymns are essentially saying, and yet is utterly barking mad. At the same time, it is stirring stuff, and even through the nonsense, it still seems to conjure the same God as that of Blake or Milton in some intangible way. There is still the sense of mystery, wonder and grandeur in spite of the strangeness. A tape player repeats the word: “Scourge”.
The second section sees us move from the cramped cell into the Shunt lift and then out the other side into the figurative belly of the whale. Kane covers his head in a porridgy whale-insides-like viscera and warbles in a high pitched voice. The word “scourge” crops up again and reminds us that the general title Jonah and the Whale is a bit of a gloss. After all, kooky detail though the whale is, it merely serves as a cute aside in a story about a religious fundamentalist instructed by God to go to a city with which God is displeased and tell them to mend their ways or face obliteration.
In the third part, having gone back through the lift, we arrive in Nineveh with Jonah, who promptly books into a hotel and starts phoning everyone in the phone book to tell them God’s message, shouting: “You're dead. You should have believed him when he told you he loved you” into the handset. At one point, Kane goes out of the main Shunt entrance and screams the same message at passers-by on London Bridge station, while wearing a dressing gown and cradling a gutted fish in his arms. The show concludes with a song about Sonic the Hedgehog, which somehow manages to make Sonic sound like a perfect metaphor for human free will set against God’s agency in the world.
In many ways, though, it feels wrong to pin the thing down so closely to some of its apparent source material. After all, this is theatre doing what it absolutely does best - creating abstractions and making metaphors while remaining baffling, funny, frightening and hugely entertaining; allowing the mind to be led and at the same time to explore the explosions being triggered in its synapses. This is a glorious, astonishing show. Absolutely essential viewing.