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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Amanda Lawrence and Sebastian Armesto/ Ph: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Though he wrote more than 300 plays, of which 80, we are told, survive, the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina, a contemporary of Shakespeare, is not a playwright with whose work I am familiar. And although his output represents a Golden Age in the Spanish theatre – up there, almost, with Lope de Vega – there is nothing in his play Damned by Despair that suggests even a modicum of talent – at any rate not in the updated new version by Frank McGuinesss presently besmirching the good name of the National Theatre.

I can honestly say I do not remember ever seeing anything quite so appallingly inept on the prestigious Olivier stage. True, there have been past evenings at this hallowed address that have left me baffled and underwhelmed, but nothing quite as bad as this. What could the National’s usually astute director Nicholas Hytner have been thinking when he gave McGuiness and the show’s director Bijan Sheibani the green light? To quote a lyric from The King and I: “Is a puzzlement.”

What, one must assume, de Molina intended was a play examining Christian morality, the nature of salvation, the forces of good and evil, and the healing power of redemption. What emerges, however, is little more than a bizarre tale of a pious but deeply confused hermit called Paulo, who, during a 10-year quest for salvation through penance, is suddenly confronted by the devil in the guise of an angel and told that his destiny is inextricably conjoined with that of a man called Enrico. Whatever God has in store for Enrico, says the devil, the same fate will befall Paulo.

The hermit is then persuaded to seek out Enrico in Naples and to watch and emulate him. Cut to a pizzeria in that city where Enrico turns out to be the most despicable, violent, blaspheming, remorselessly evil man to whom God ever gave breath.

What happens next – at least as rendered by McGuiness – is metaphysical twaddle, the uninvolving details of which do not merit synopsising. Whatever qualities de Molina’s play must originally have possessed have been so filleted out and obscured in this version that very little about it makes sense. There is not a single observation worth considering, and not a single character you even remotely care about.

Giles Cadle’s set is clunky, Sheibani’s direction a mess, and the performances as unconvincing as the text. Even Bertie Carvel, so delicious as the evil schoolmistress in Matilda, is miscast as an almost effeminate Enrico. Though the characters' actions are revoltingly brutal, there is no menace in the performance, and worse, no charisma.

Violence, it would appear, has also been performed on the text, which, instead of running two hours and 35 minutes as advertised, now staggers in at just over two hours, including a 20-minute interval. Believe me, it’s the only good decision all night.


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