Sunday, 7 October 2012

Damned by Despair, 5 October 2012 (Preview)

Who's in it? Bertie Carvel, Sebastian Armesto, Leanne Best, Rory Keenan, Lorna Brown, Michael Gould, Amanda Lawrence, Pierce Reid and Alex Warren.

Where did you see it? Olivier, National Theatre

Occasionally the National Theatre put on productions that make you wonder what the director has on Sir Nicholas Hytner . Associate Director Bijan Sheibani must have something pretty major to bring Frank McGuinness' adaptation of Tirso de Molina's Damned by Despair to the biggest theatre on the South Bank.

It is a complete and utter car crash. The lack of big names means it isn't selling too well (I had complementary tickets) and when it does get an audience in they are quick to disappear at the interval. The story surrounds hermit Paulo (Armesto), who after receiving a message from 'God', goes to find his counterpart Enrico (Carvel), a violent man who kills for money and sometimes just for fun. Armesto and Carvel are badly miscast. Armesto lacks the charm or ability to keep the audience interested in Paulo and Carvel, 2012 Olivier Award winner for Matilda, is all charm and muscle (He looks fantastic, he reminded me of a young Gary Oldman when Oldman only played psychos) but his musical theatre past keeps cropping up, with limp wristed movements and all round campiness that ruins any belief the audience had in Enrico,violent gang-leader and killer. The brilliant What's on Stage forum suggested he wants baddie roles but Carvel will be lucky to get any roles after this.

Company in rehearsal
Add in the fact that is religious propaganda that sits uncomfortably with a 21st century audience. I hate to sound all Ricky Gervais but it feels out of place, in the same way 13's message of Atheism felt like being force fed marbles of issues that aren't done well at the best of times but feel particularly clunky in the theatre.

It is also doesn't seem to know when it is set, is it 17th century Naples as the original or is it a modern day setting (There's a really cringey bit with Carvel and his gang, shocking made up of mostly black men which really offended me, singing 'Stuck in the Middle' with you as they chopped off someone's ear) . The actual set is one of the cheapest, nastiest sets I have seen in a theatre.It looks like cardboard and the only pay off is a scene towards the end. It's staging means a lot of action takes places amongst the audience, which results in awkward shuffling as some realise they are both watching and they are also part of the action. There is also the poor supporting cast, only saved by Alex Warren and Rory Keenan, who provide actual charm and suitable acting in this poor production. Leanne Best plays Celia as smug, quite unnecessarily which makes me think she isn't necessarily acting the smugness and Pierce Reid, who was actually quite good in Collaborators, is reduced to ensemble.

I am not sure how the National can justify this dull play at any time, let alone during a recession. Offering during the Travelex season isn't justification for why it looks and feels so cheap and it isn't what you expect from the National Theatre.

My recommendation is don't go but if you do try to enjoy as campy nonsense rather than a serious play.

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