“Damned by Despair” at the National Theatre

In case it doesn’t become apparent, Tirso de Molina’s Damned by Despair is a theological exploration of salvation. It parallels two protagonists – a vile criminal who enters heaven because of his faith and a pious hermit who is guilty of pride, then despair, and ends up in hell. In the hands of director Bijan Sheibani, it’s hard to imagine who on earth would find this interesting, but on the off chance that you have a passion for counter-reformation theology, be warned – stay at home and read your catechism, as this production is truly awful.

The first flaw is Frank McGuinness’ adaptation: full of bizarre anachronisms that prevent it sounding modern but isolate the play from its historical context, it is jarring to the point of distraction. While Tirso’s play is predictable throughout – it has to be to prove its point –what’s remarkable is Sheibani’s inability to add any drama. There’s plenty of running around in circles and shouting, and lots of violence, but no tension at all. Even worse, both the text and production rob the play of any complexity.

What adds to one’s annoyance, and surprises for the National Theatre, particularly given this cast, is that not even the performances can be praised. Only Amanda Lawrence, who plays Satan, really holds the stage, despite this being a play where the devil doesn’t get the best lines. Rory Keenan gets a few laughs as the Monk Paulo’s devoted servant but, along with the immensely talented Bertie Carvel, seems woefully miscast. The ensemble in particular, who take on the role of various criminals and the police, couldn’t be less threatening if they tried. This dire production limps from failure to failure, damned by despair indeed.

Until 17 December 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Written 15 October 2012 for The London Magazine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.