“Look on this and learn. Let that be your punishment”
I don’t think there is another director who frustrates me quite as much as Bijan Sheibani. The devastating simplicity with which he tackled 2009’s Our Class and the elegiac beauty he brought to the Iranian-themed Bernarda Alba earlier this year has delighted, but he’s also responsible for making 70 minutes seem like a pained lifetime in Moonlight and threw everything including his kitchen sink into the multi-authored chaotic carnival ride that was Greenland. So it is hard to know what to expect from his work, but it seems sure to provoke strong emotion in me one way or another. Sadly, his latest foray at the National Theatre – Damned by Despair – errs towards the latter of the above categories. It is still in previews to be sure, but it is hard to imagine that this isn’t a fatally flawed production.
The play is a religious epic from 1625, written by Spanish monk Tirso de Molina, and delves into sticky questions of spirituality such as is heaven is reserved for those who spend a lifetime believing and can non-believers be redeemed through the accomplishment of good deeds. This is subject matter of a deeply different kind to what our more agnostic tastes are now suited, but the difficulties inherent in translating such ideas to a modern audience are simply magnified by a clumsy new version by Frank McGuinness and some baffling directorial choices from Sheibani which swung from cringeworthy to laughable and almost always misguided – I fear some serious trimming will need to be done if there’s any hope for the production.
We’re in Travelex territory so one assumes budgets are tighter but Giles Cadle’s design looks like a cheap version of a cheap and nasty 70s sci-fi flick, none more so in the feeble flame and shaking skeleton which represented the fires of hell. And it is not the only set-piece to fall flat, a crucial hanging scene has all the danger leeched out of it as the actor, exposed up high, visibly hooks himself to the necessary safety apparatus to risible effect. McGuinness’ text is as culpable though, as it strains for a contemporary resonance which feels entirely at odds with the story and more often than not, crucially undercuts the dramatic tension at key moments with inept attempts at humour.
As for the story, it is actually quite difficult to make an assessment of it independent of the all the gubbins around it. What it seemed to be was a tale of a fervently devoted hermit Paulo who has been in the wilderness (in the seventeenth century) praying for 10 years, who finds himself visited by the devil who informs him that his fate is irrevocably linked and will be similar to that of Enrico, a man who he finds out is a vicious thug in downtown Naples. Thus he despairs that all his worship has been in vain but as it turns out, it’s not quite as simple as that. Indeed, Sheibani lends a complicating hand in making Naples a modern-day pizzeria, wrenching the play from its original context and providing precious little illumination to an already dense work.
Key casting choices also seem awry: Sebastian Armesto rarely convinced me that he belonged on the stage as Paulo and Bertie Carvel – though sibilantly powerful – feels utterly miscast as vicious gangster Enrico. They’re rarely helped by a production that throws in Reservoir Dogs homages, strangely bloodless gunfights and a lack of clarity – it is never abundantly obvious that Amanda Lawrence’s black-clad character is actually the devil… Sometimes one can see that a preview period can allow for wrinkles to be ironed out, but in the case of Damned By Despair, I’m not sure there is an ironing board big enough to deal with the issues within.