To the National Theatre to see a frankly disappointing production of the Spanish Golden Age play Damned by Despair by the Spanish monk Tristo de Molina, which left me wondering why it had been added to the repertoire?
Paulo a devout monk is tricked by a devil in disguise as an angel to go to Naples and find Enrico, an extortionist thug, played with moments of quiet menace by Bertie Carvel. God has decreed, says the devil, that the two men are destined to meet the same end. The devil encourages Paolo to go to the city and follow the gangster's example.
Under cover in Naples the monk is appalled by Enrico's excesses, but fails to comprehend the basic humanity beneath the murderous exterior. True to his promise he transforms himself into a murderous shark and, in so doing, reveals the uncovered sin at the heart of his piety: pride. He has seen salvation on purely transactional terms and upset that God is not in the business of offering rewards his renunciation of a holy life leads him into everlasting damnation. By contrast Enrico's redemptive speech in the face of death sees him soaring up on a trip wire to heaven, situated somewhere high in the rafters of the Olivier.
The play is deceptively simple and this production falls into the trap of trying too hard to find a modern relevance. The psychological truths looked for by the actors fail to connect them with the two dimensional allegorical characterisations that they are called to represent and the attempt to stage the Naples scenes in a modern setting trivialises further the basic Christian message which gives the play cause.
Overall there is a sense of failure here. The show is much shorter than advertised. An admission perhaps of late rehearsal cuts of unplayable scenes. The set frames the world in a parody of an El Greco painting, jagged mountains and vertical planes abound. It's pretty, but adds little to the telling of the tale. Occasionally there are nods to the £12 student tickets, a reference to Reservoir Dogs and a visceral slow motion shoot out, but nothing really holds together.
A clue to how things might have been different does come in the form of a young choir boy who appears in the stalls to sing an effecting psalm. It's a wonderfully beautiful moment in a sea of confusion. In a more intimate setting where bangs, tricks and whizzes could be done away with the play may well have carried more meaning. Perhaps the director, in a strange parallel to Paolo's own dilemma fell for the temptation of giving this religious drama a secular treatment which reveals more about the demands of the modern audience than the intentions of the play.
Mark is the Academic Director of the Drama Programmes at St Mary's University in Twickenham. He has worked internationally as a theatre director and educator for the past 15 years, focused mostly on youth, community, and conflict resolution work.
As a lecturer Mark taught at Goldsmiths College, Coventry University and was Head of Performing Arts at Canterbury College prior to joining St Mary’s in 2006.
His Professional directing credits include Henry V (One of US?) and Valhalla for RSC Education; The Wind in the Willows, Jack Cade, The Red, Red Robin for Sevenoaks Playhouse; Tender Souls, The Quality of Mercy and Playhouse Creatures for the Ambassadors Theatre group.
Mark is a director of subVERSE Theatre company for whom has directed fringe premieres of Chief, Dinnertime and OxfamC**t at Theatre 503.
Site specific work includes Purka and Shadow on Icelandic volcanoes and Novocento with students from the University of Genoa.