Review: Damned by Despair at the National Theatre

Amanda Lawrence as The Devil, Bertie Carvel as Enrico. Photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Do we go to heaven because we have faith or because we do good deeds? This is the central question in Damned by Despair, a play by 17th century spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina, revived at the National theatre in a new version by Frank McGuiness. The distinct possibility that heaven doesn’t exist is not part of this play’s fabric, and I am happy to leave my agnostic beliefs at the door and explore fascinating spiritual questions in their own terms.

Enrico is a total thug, doing unspeakable things (think Reservoir Dogs in Naples), but also has an unwavering  faith in god and a real love for his father. He is ridiculously charismatic, not least because Bertie Carvel can be anything but: his dark streak is laced with something softer and more tender, almost as explosive as the violence itself. Paulo is a monk, whose faith in god hangs on a thread. If the thread breaks, the faith goes. As played by Sebastian Armersto, Paolo is wrapped in himself and his agony failing to engage with the real world (isn’t that more damning than the lack of faith?). The spiritual fates of these two men are locked together to the bitter end.

Two more characters leave big impressions: the Devil, as played by Amanda Lawrence, is an androgynous fascinating creature, shape shifting by just changing a cape, and dangerous, not because it’s evil but because it knows everything. Amanda Laurence hardly ever moves but you are drawn to her like a moth to the flame. Pedrisco, as played by Rory Keenan (so good in the Donmar production of Philadelphia Here I Come), is a monk, Paulo’s friend and fellow traveller. He is the human heart of the play, a pragmatist, a good soul, a person engaged in the world in a way neither Enrico or Paolo are. Rory Keenan does wonders with Frank McGuiness warm and earthy language (is it because they are both irish?), unleashing much needed humour and poetry.

Scene on scene, I found myself engaged and often thrilled, swept by the energy of the performances. But the production seems to lack direction and doesn’t make the leap to a coherent and vital whole. Despite its virtues (charismatic leads, poetic and earthy language, nice flourishes in the staging) it never commits fully to one course of action: is it a modern setting, and how does that work with spiritual questions posed half a millennium ago? If these questions are important, why are they undermined by an ironic approach? If violence is such a big part of the story, why are the fight scenes timid with hardly any blood? (In one scene, Bertie Carvel’s Enriquo, in a prison and chained at the waist, dashes across the stage till the chain pulls him back and falls with great force. That one instant of great physicality puts to shame most other physical confrontations that look timid and – well – staged). The experience should be lacerating, instead it’s merely interesting.

The Olivier stage adds its own problems: it’s vast, hard to fill and a timid approach doesn’t work. The sets, mostly flat pack whether it’s a rock or a shop, add to the feeling of a production that it’s less than it should be. The reactions so far are mixed and occasionally extreme, and for a second opinion (you will definitely need it) you can read revstan’s four star review here.

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