Being as I am a complete philistine, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the quality of Tirso de Molina’s writing (alright, I might in a bit), however I am happy to speak on the translation. To me, any work of fiction which asks actors to use the word “bling” with straight faces is on shaky ground. If you couple that with a general tone of writing and language with strongly evokes an era a good two to three hundred years past, it becomes a single word which is indicative of the mess of contradictions within Damned by Despair, which I was lucky/unlucky enough to receive press tickets for a few weeks ago.
It begins with ascetic monks living for ten years up a hill to shrive themselves for God and then quickly change scenes to a pizzeria. They are sent, by the devil incarnate posing as an angel, to see a man who is to all appearances one of the vilest to walk the earth: a killer, a maimer, a rapist and revelling in it all, certainly not destined for heaven. What is this man like? Is he a theatrical powerhouse, drawing the eye, striking fear in the heart and appearing terrifying to all? Well, no, Bertie Carvel’s Enrico is… camp. As a villain, he is totally unconvincing and I fear wouldn’t terrify my pet rabbit. If I had one. He minces more than swaggers, and so it’s not clear to me why his main squeeze, Celia (Leanne Best) who feels the need to shout all of her lines rather than deliver them, is so drawn to him. How all this can not have been picked up and rectified by director Bijan Sheibani is beyond me as is how he has allowed Sebastien Arnesto, playing lead monk Paulo, to make it this far into the show while still delivering his lines as if they were a page of prose rather than living dialogue. Rory Keenan provides scarce moments of comic relief as his sidekick Pedrisco but he certainly can’t be expected to save the acting of the rest of the main cast. Some of these performances have been praised by other reviewers and I can only say that they clearly weren’t at the same press night I was.
Late on in the play, a character dies and is lifted heavenward toward a bright light, symbolising his salvation. So far so cliché, but ok. As he rises, the actor raises his eyes skyward, followed by a hand reaching for glory, appearing to all and sundry like a bald Christopher Reeve’s Superman. At this point, my fourth wall took an irresistible blow too many, it was just ridiculous and is emblematic of the poor directorial choices in this play.
The play also appears to have been designed for a much smaller stage, and thus the decision to put it in such a large space as the Olivier is an odd one. It simply doesn’t fit.
The play clearly seeks to raise important questions about faith, actions, religion and salvation, earthly and heavenly and in some way, successfully does so. Unfortunately, the writing itself is clearly from an era when Christian theology was better understood by the majority and I fear many will struggle to follow some of the themes explored within as a man of faith travels a dark path and an evil man is redeemed. More exposition on this subject might have been helpful prefacing a modern adaptation. Even as a believer of some years, I found that it didn’t all make much sense. Both Enrico’s take on the world and his sudden and apparently baseless late-game conversion are incongruous and unconvincing (maybe God agreed). As a devout man, Paulo’s grasp of the most basic principles of his faith, around which the play revolves in many ways, is pretty woeful. Had he but once in his life picked up a Bible and read a gospel, none of the rest of the play would have come about.
All in all, I tried to enjoy Damned by Despair for what it was, a flawed production of a moderately entertaining play attempting to explore the deep issues of Christian salvation, but I just couldn’t. It improves sharply in the second half to be sure, but given the time back, I wouldn’t invest it again in the first to get there. A rare and unfortunate dud for the National, I shan’t hold it against them.