Thursday, 11 October 2012
Theatre review: Damned by Despair
With Our Class, Eurydice and his take on Ghosts, Bijan Sheibani was shaping up as one of my favourite directors, with a talent for bringing out the best in what looked like unpromising subjects; but in the last year or so his name has been attached to more than its share of stinkers, especially at the National Theatre. Meanwhile Sebastian Armesto is an actor I like, but who also seems to have been plonked by the National into some of its more unremarkable, at best, stuff. So a production on the National's biggest stage, directed by Sheibani and starring Armesto would seem, to a superstitious person, to be some kind of omen of disaster. But just because mystical signs seem to be predicting a horrible doom doesn't mean you have to act accordingly, does it? So along I went to Damned by Despair, this year's final Travelex production.
Paulo (Armesto) is a devout man who's spent the last ten years as a hermit, living in a cave and praying, the only person he ever sees being Pedrisco (Rory Keenan,) who lives in the next cave along and seems slightly less enthusiastic about the the whole monastic life but goes along with it for reasons I'm not that clear on. When Paulo's faith wavers for a second, the Devil (Amanda Lawrence - another good actress with a shaky track record) takes the opportunity and appears to him as an angel, announcing that the fate of Paulo's soul is inextricably linked to that of a man called Enrico - if Enrico goes to heaven, so does Paulo. But a visit to Naples reveals Enrico to be a mass-murdering gangster, and with his damnation seemingly sealed the hermit decides to abandon all hope, embrace his fate and live the rest of his life as a vicious bandit.
Jan wondered afterwards why on earth anyone would want to stage the play in this day and age. Actually I can understand what might have been Nicholas Hytner's reasoning in programming it, because the play so firmly endorses what I find a particularly repellent piece of dogma, and it would be interesting to see how that would work when presented from a 21st century perspective. But unfortunately Sheibani presents the play as is, and a 17th century morality play really is all that we get in the end. Generally, in fact, I found the play to be under-directed (and Lorna Brown, as the friend of Enrico's girlfriend, again under-used; some day she'll get another show like Clybourne Park to show what she's got.)
Ultimately I can't recommend Damned by Despair even as a car crash, because the production would need to embrace its more demented side much more to achieve that. But neither do I quite see what has made people so angry about it. It's misjudged on a number of levels and has the odd dip into dullness, but it's not a complete disaster - a two-star show, if I did that sort of thing, rather than a no-star show.
Damned by Despair by Tirso de Molina in a version by Frank McGuinness is booking in repertory until the 17th of December at the National Theatre's Olivier.
Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.