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. Continue reading