Monday, 15 October 2012

Damned by Despair - review

Written by: Peeny (@AdamPeeny

Where's Peen been?
National Theatre (Olivier), London
Was Peen keen? 

Feel free to judge this production by its name. The empty feeling after a poor production that is arguably quite rare at the National Theatre has a truly remarkable presence in the Olivier these days, and we leave thinking two things: evil is still evil, and sugar still tastes like sugar.

Written in 1625 by Tirso de Molina (who, bless, could never have known how he would bore a multiple thousand strong audience just shy of 400 years down the line), we see an updated version by Frank McGuinness, which is a literal translation of its Spanish original.

It’s a tale of two sides; one that we should sympathise for, and one that we should be frightened of - but the former evokes very little emotion and the latter makes the prospect of laughing in the face of evil seem quite inviting. There is a hell of a lot of spiel about faith and religion in there somewhere too, but it’s ironic that the funniest moment is the delivery of the line “to get to the point”, by an exhausted performer. If you’re yet to see this production and would like to be further disappointed by the sad amount of predictability, look away now: the good guy falls from atop a mountain causing his death, and the bad guy is hoisted to the lighting rig (read ‘heaven’) of the Olivier in one of the least awe-inspiring moments of theatricality that I assume the National has ever played host to.

One thing that Bijan Sheibani fails to exude through direction is clarity – of when and where the hell we are. The entire piece is set on one of two backdrops: a mountain, or a pizzeria. On top of this, both designs by Giles Cadle are equally gloomy and fail to compliment the already struggling production in any recognisable way. Even more annoyingly, the movement between locations doesn’t marry with the difference in costumes (Moritz Junge) amongst characters and the language used throughout.

Ultimately, this is a poorly thought out production with a relatively weak text where the sporadic punch lines gain little more than a few sympathetic giggles.  But its main aim isn’t to make you laugh; it is to realise the fateful contradictions of the least intimidating Neapolitan rebel alive, Enrico, and the miserable Paolo that seeks him. It seems only fair to acknowledge that there were a couple of obvious faults within the performance on this night that should have been avoidable, but were difficult to roll with. On that count, the ensemble (specifically Bertie Carvel) should be praised. The performance also ran marginally over 2 hours (with an interval), but was stated to be 2 hours and 35 minutes long with a 20-minute interval – so an assumed recent hacking of some text may have proved an unattractive distraction.
            It’s admirable how the ensemble are wholly committed and a lot of the faults are production values as opposed to quality of performance – in fact, that’s actually quite good, albeit we see more chins than faces. We do leave begging the question ‘what the hell have I just seen?’ which is often a good thing – but sadly, not this time. 

This production runs until 17 December 2012. 
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