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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
DAMNED BY DESPAIR
at the National (Olivier)

BEYOND SALVATION
By JOHN NATHAN

  Sebastian Armesto and Rory Keenan/ Ph: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

There appears to be so little to recommend in this 17th-century Catholic morality lesson by Spanish monk Tirso de Molina, I looked up past productions for clues as to why any director would want to revive it.

Stephen Daldry's 1991 version squeezed the epic into west London's tiny Gate Theatre, apparently with highly theatrical results. Perhaps it was the intimate proximity to sin and salvation that thrilled. This updated version, directed by Bijan Sheibani and modernised by Irish dramatist Frank McGuinness, fills the vast Olivier stage with a biblical landscape. But after using the space so well for his slick revival of Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen, Sheibani's production this time feels oddly unpolished.

The play begins with the cassock-wearing Paulo (Sebastian Armesto) pleading for God to reward him for his 10 years lived as a devout hermit. The devil disguised as an angel tells Paulo that God has answered by linking his fate with a Neapolitan called Enrico (Bertie Carvel). Paulo assumes Enrico must be a godly man destined for heaven. But Enrico turns out to be the baddest gangster in Naples and is clearly earmarked for hell.

Carvel's star status rose with his portrayal of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank in the Donmar's production of the musical Parade. More recently he delivered a show-stealing performance as the sadistic headmistress in the RSC's musical Matilda. Here his Enrico goes about his gangster ways with even more sadism, plus a good deal of swagger. In a Reservoir Dogs-inspired scene he slices the ear of a victim while dancing to “Stuck in the Middle with You.” But the moment only highlights the production's lack of Tarantino-like humour and tension, without which violence on stage and screen is hardly any fun at all.

Convinced that he is as damned as Enrico, Paulo reasons that he might as well earn his place in hell by having as much fun as Enrico on Earth. So he too becomes a serial killer, smiting his way through victims with a brutality that even Tarantino might watch from behind a cushion.

Paulo's logic makes perfect sense if deep down you're a serial killer whose idea of a good time is maiming and killing. But for the rest of us there has to be a more enjoyable way to be damned. And because updating the play removes Enrico and Paulo from a time when heretics were still burned, Enrico and Paulo come across as a couple of modern-day psychopaths rather than versions of flawed humanity.

There is one heart-stopping moment, when God's infinite mercy appears as a tender aria performed by an angelic shepherd boy. But aside from that beautiful interlude there isn't much relief in an often-unpleasant evening memorable more for its violence than drama. Even McGuinness' script seems lazily prosaic. “Now he's out of sight, he's out of mind” is not the only embarrassing line. It is delivered by Enrico when his father leaves the stage. He is the only human Enrico loves, and it's this love that leads to his salvation. Though it'll need more than that to save this production.

 


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