Review: Sand and Sandals produced a mixed Berenice
Were the critics damning of Damned by Despair?

Review: Flash Gordon sets, Harry Potter and Hanging in Damned by Despair @nationaltheatre

Safe_imageThis week on Twitter I was accused of having a 'love in' with the National Theatre but isn't that the nature of theatre and the arts generally, not everything is going to please everyone?  I just happen to have had a run of plays at the National that I have liked when not many others have.

The play that prompted the comment was Damned By Despair which is still in preview at the Olivier.

OK so the set isn't initially inspiring and looked like something that had been dragged out of storage from an old Flash Gordon film but it wasn't distracting and the production has its grand moments later on. Indeed it is another play where, if you duck out at the interval you miss most of the best bits  - Lyn Gardner posed the question this week whether it is OK to walk out of a play

The fact that I got to the interval thinking the first half had flown by means I must have been getting something out of it. I certainly wasn't bored.

I've never before seen Tirso de Molina's 17th Century play about faith and fate, forgiveness and damnation - a dark and dense subject matter and not something that wouldn't normally appeal. 

So maybe it is Frank McGuinness's updating of the language, giving the actors a humour and lightness to work with and allowing for colourful characterisation that made this entertaining? Turning to see the source of the beautiful voice singing behind me to find Harry Potter standing there also helped. (OK so it wasn't Harry Potter but it was a boy of Philosopher's Stone age who happened to be wearing round spectacles and a cloak - he was a shepherd in the play not just a random singing, Harry Potter-look alike.)

The story of Damned by Despair is of how two very different men's lives become interwoven by a shared fate. Paulo (Sebastian Armesto) lives a humble life up in the mountains with his friend Pedrisco (Rory Keenan) hoping to get into God's good grace but he is growing impatient for a sign. He's all fervant piety but also feels a sense of entitlement because of his years of penance. Pedrisco on the other hand while loyal, just wants a decent meal.

The Devil - a deliciously sinister Amanda Lawrence - decides to play with Paulo's pride, poses as an angel and tells him to go into Naples and find a man called Enrico (Bertie Carvel) prophesying that Paulo's fate will mirror Enrico's.

Enrico is a 'bad 'un'. He thieves, murders and generally terrorises without remorse indeed he feels empowered by the fear he engenders. He's the antithesis of Paulo and on a one way ticket to hell.

Carvell's soft, slightly melodious voice coupled with his explosions of violence make Enrico terrifying but also, perversely, an attractive figure. He's one of those baddies that has you rooting for him, or maybe that was just because Paulo was a bit whingey and too pious for my liking? 

What Paulo sees when he encounters Enrico makes him question his faith and his subsequent choices set him on a path that will bring him closer to Enrico.

*plot spoiler alert* I don't know how a 17th century Catholic audience would have read the play but for me there was a great irony in the fact that Enrico ultimately repents and goes to heaven and Paulo believing himself unworthy of forgiveness for his wrong-doings, does not seek mercy and goes to hell. The 'just as long as you are sorry' argument for redemption is troublesome for me but then I'm not a Catholic nor religious.

Still it all leads up to some rather dramatic pyrotechnics and a hanging scene that had my heart beating in my throat even though I could see the safety wires. Putting all that to one side it is an interesting play not only about choices versus fate and the nature - the differing nature - of mankind.

It has a lot going on beneath its surface packaged up with some interesting characters (wish we could have had more of Amanda Lawrence and Rory Keenan though). It's not perfect but I enjoyed it and never thought for one moment about duking out so I'm going to give it four stars.

For an alternative view head over to Poly's blog.