Damned by Despair at the National Theatre
It is the opening preview night on The Olivier Stage of The National Theatre’s associate director’s next venture. Bijan Sheibani directs a new version penned by eloquent writer Frank McGuinness of Tirso de Molina’s Damned by Despair. The cast includes Olivier award-winning Bertie Carvel, who won Best Actor for his role as Miss Trunchbull in the RSC’s famous Matilda and well-known theatre actor Sebastian Armesto.
An old text and story about your relationship with God and God’s attitude towards mercy is a big ask of an audience to sit through. We open on Paulo (Armesto), on a grand, elevated rock who discusses his ten-year hermit life full of prayerful penance and his obsession with his own salvation. We then meet his friend Pedrisco (Rory Keenan, who possesses brilliant comic timing) who lives in a nearby cave, also living humbly with God. Paulo then prays to God for some guidance and the devil intervenes. With an exquisitely characterful face, Amanda Lawrence scares in her stillness and holds her own as an asexual, all-in-black devil with almost a hint of seduction. The devil tells Paulo that there is a man he should find and watch, because that man will meet his maker in the same way Paulo will. Elated, Paulo and Pedrisco run off to Naples to find the elusive Enrico (Bertie Carvel).
After this initial statement, the audience begins to sit comfortably, but we are then transported slowly and stagnantly to the restoration period, intertwined with modern clothes, and then a war zone, and then a lot of unnecessary pyrotechnics and suspension strings. We meet Enrico, a violent hit man, who is written as nasty and fierce. Apparently he is purposely miscast because Carvel brings an unexpected feminine quality to the role. At one point, Enrico ends up fleeing from the police with his second hand Galvan (Alex Warren) and they suddenly appear strung up at the top of the auditorium falling awkwardly and poorly timed into water to escape.
The cast are well energised but the set is too much and unfinished. Even for a preview, swinging doors and unstable props are just unacceptable, particularly for The National. The direction is questionable and unclear, despite Sheibani’s magnificent show of The Kitchen last year on the same stage. It is unpolished, lacks definition and confidence, and it appears like the creative ensemble have put a few pieces of the puzzle into the wrong holes. The design, however magnificent, isn’t justified and the set changes are far too long.
Some performances shine in their moments, but they are fleeting. The female members lack vocal power and clarity of objective. The costumes had just as a bizarre journey as the set. For example, within a scene there were restoration themed corset dresses, which then split up the leg standing next to Enrico, in low jeans with bright Calvin Klein pants on that he kept pulling up.
An uncomfortable watch. With such mammoth text and old language, the cast drive their speeches well, but the complexity of their surroundings complicates and distracts. It’s too much. The simplicity of the beginning worked, then it became an under rehearsed clash of over expressive creativity. The cast’s bow was even apologetic.
Watch the trailer for Damned by Despair here: