wed 16/04/2014

Damned by Despair, National Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Damned by Despair, National Theatre

Spain's theatrical Golden Age is tarnished in National misfire

Tirso de Molina in two dimensions: a panoramic view of the National's take on a 17th-century Spanish classicall photos: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Spain's Golden Age turns unaccountably to dross in Damned by Despair, the Tirso de Molina play that is a good half-hour shorter than the running time given in the programme but won't (in this production, anyway) ever be brief enough for some. Fascinating for theatre buffs to see what the remarkable Bertie Carvel would choose for a follow-up to Matilda, the play itself comes across in Frank McGuinness's new version as tendentious, silly, and barely coherent, though it does suggest a new career for Carvel as a celluloid hard man should he ever tire of treading the boards of the major British theatres. 

Those inclined to blame the piece should recall the important stepping-stone that a 1991 Gate Theatre production of this canonical European text was for a fledgling Stephen Daldry, who brought an epic sensibility (and cast of 30) to a theatre seating not many more. But returning to the same capacious National space where he scored a notable success last autumn with The Kitchen, Bijan Sheibani rarely communicates any real connection with the material. The hurried curtain call said it all, as if everyone involved wanted to get proceedings over with as soon as possible. (Nor is Giles Cadle's apparent flatpack of a set worth an audience's further attention, with or without the vaguely New Agey projections of Finn Ross.) 

That sense of a production in the process of self-erasure is a shame, in fact, given the genuine intrigue posed by a 1625 tragedy here updated to the landscape of Neapolitan bloodbaths and Tarantino-esque violence. We begin with the hermit Paulo (Sebastian Armesto, pictured right) who is enticed by the Devil (a beaky, black-clad Amanda Lawrence) to come down from the mountain to hang with a soft-spoken, leather-jacketed "bad ass" (McGuinness's language, not mine) called Enrico (Carvel). Enrico's way with a knife coexists uneasily with a rather pronounced father fixation. (Michael Gould seems pretty lively for the crippled dad on death's door.)

The play posits two antithetical souls on contrasting paths towards redemption that don't necessarily have much to do with actual do-gooding on earth. The despicable Enrico fares better than the God-fearing Paulo, though that may have more to do with the Naples thug at least getting to hop about singing snatches of pop standards. Poor ol' Paulo, by contrast. is saddled with copious direct address to the deity; the comic relief proffered by his sidekick Pedrisco (Rory Keenan), doesn't land. 

Amanda Lawrence and Bertie Carvel in Damned by DespairThe play is steeped in a Catholic orthodoxy that McGuinness seems unsure whether to take at face value or send up. It sets its two central characters on a collision course of sorts that would be clearer if the evening didn't give off the feel of having had chunks lopped out of it. And it's difficult to engage with a text that piles on the over-alliterative and lofty rhetoric as well as naff self-assertion ("this lost lamb may be a roaring lion") and the simply bizarre. (try figuring out "there is bone in the marrow of my bones").

I liked Lawrence's wide-eyed guile - the play could use more of her - and heaven knows Carvel (pictured above with Lawrence) hurls himself at the role of the conscience-plagued reprobate. But the production seems consigned to its own resting place as a National curiosity. "My hair's standing on end," an enchained Enrico announces near the end. I'm glad someone's was.

The hurried curtain call said it all, as if everyone involved wanted to get proceedings over with as soon as possible

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