” ‘Tis mad idolatry to make the service greater than the god.”

Troilus and Cressida, Act 2, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

I went to see ‘Damned by Despair’ at the National Theatre on Thursday with my lovely friend Beth. Admittedly, part of the reason I went was because I could get really cheap student tickets. However, the play is also based on a 13th century Spanish play by Tirso de Molina and updated by Frank Guiness; so I thought: Spanish and English Literature combined? Sounds good to me… 🙂

The play has mostly got 3-star reviews, with a couple worse, so I’ve got to be honest, I went into it prepared for the worst. Actually, it wasn’t too bad. Contrary to the Guardian’s review (see below for the link), I thought that the acting and staging was very good, but the actual plotline was just too predictable and simple for me.


Therefore, I think I should start with the plotline; after all, it won’t take too much explaining! Paulo, a saintly man repenting for his sins in exile, is told by a devil-disguised-as-an-angel that his fate is inextricably linked with a Neapolitan man, Enrico. So when Paulo finds out Enrico is the most evil, nasty man in all of the world, he’s pretty upset to say the least. The play follows both Enrico, demonstrating his redeeming love for his father, and Paulo, as he gives up on sainthood, feeling there is no point if he is already damned. I won’t give away the ending, but I think you could probably guess it from the title of the play- it’s a typical story used by many religions to teach a lesson about God’s mercy and faith; a fact which is pointed out by my favourite character, Pedrisco, Paulo’s servant/friend, at the end of the play.

As always, I felt the staging was very apt; the swift changes and clear cut sets were impressive, and I especially liked the prison scenes. The tempestuous sky in the imagesCA5XVTTYbackground was very effective when contrasted with the rocksand the rising stage at the front (see left).  However, both Beth and I felt that there was some confusion over the era it was set in; obviously, with such a religious play, it’s hard to make the themes feel modern, since the majority of people are atheists nowadays. Yet the National decided to use both modern costumes for the ‘Naples’ section, which, I admit, definitely showed that these characters were current, but clashed with the old-fashioned mentions of bandits, public execution and eternal hell. The fact that the little boy playing the Shepherd (representing Heaven and salvation), Paulo and Pedrisco all wore quite antiquated costumes made this clash more pronounced, and, personally, I feel it just didn’t reconcile.

As I’ve said before, Pedrisco (Rory Keenan – see below with Armesto) was my absolute favourite; partly, I admit, because he was Irish, but also because he had the funniest lines in the play; he was the most relatable character. He provided some much needed comic relief afterimagesCA5XVTTY Paulo’s constant moaning – not that Sebastian Armesto acted him badly – he didn’t – but because Paulo was just too extreme a character for me to connect with. I never felt emotionally attached to him, just irritated by his stupdity and incredibly quick desertion of his ideals. Another of my favourites, even though he was only on for about ten minutes max, was Octavio, played to perfection by Pierce Reid. Again, this was partly becausehe was one of the few comedic characters, but also because he kind of reminded me of Antony Blanche from‘Brideshead Revisited’, who I love, as you can see from my previous blog post. He was ridiculously flamboyant and exceedingly camp, and some comedy was sorely needed after Paulo’s great ‘revelation’ speeches/soliloquy. Unfortunately, he got brutally murdered within ten minutes of his coming on, which I was pretty disappointed about 😥 However, his death was brought about by Enrico, who, although it was hard to completely like him, was very well-acted by Bertie imagesCA5XVTTYCarvel (see left) – he got the *hard nut with a soft centre* role down to a tee. I completely believed in his love for his dad and how he was willing to do anything for him, and this meant I also believed in his *SPOILER ALERT* reconciliation with God at the end of the play.

There was a helluva lot of fighting in this play; gunshots galore (which never failed to make me jump), constant cutting of throats, even a hanging towards the end. Sometimes this can detract from a production; I didn’t feel it did that here, since the corrupt, violent, pacy city of Naples was brought about by its use, yet I also felt that some bits of the stage fighting were a tiny bit sloppy – they didn’t quite look realistic enough for me. Now, admittedly, I’m always up for a bit of gore – you can see my ‘King Lear’ post to see how much I enjoyed the eye -gouging scene – but I did feel that some was lacking in this production. I heard laughing during some of the fights and for that many throats cut and people shot, there just wasn’t enough blood. In fact, there wasn’t any.

So, to conclude, a much better play than I expected, although I don’t feel that modern-day atheism and the totally religious focus of the play were completely reconciled; it didn’t seem like the audience could totally buy into the concept of ever-lasting hellish torment, and that meant Paulo’s decisions and his character were incomprehensible, at least to me. The use of the old, bony woman as the Devil (Amanda Lawrence) and the innocent child as the Shepherd was a good idea in concept, but the Shepherd’s entrances sometimes seemed a little contrived and out-of-place to me; again, I couldn’t get caught up in this world where Heaven and Hell are very real prospects, which is perhaps why, when one character went up to Heaven, many of the audience laughed at his expressions of ecstasy. Some really good acting, impressive but out-of-place staging and an overly simple plot meant that I’d probably give this three out of five stars. Enjoyable theatre, but not imperative to see.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment, like and follow 🙂

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