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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Damned By Despair
Olivier Theatre   Autumn-Winter 2012

This drama by the seventeenth-century Spanish writer Tirso de Molina (here in a new version by Frank McGuinness) is essentially a religious parable illustrating the Catholic principle that salvation has little to do with good and evil, and everything to do with God's mercy. 

(Tirso was the theatrical pen name of Friar Gabriel Tellez, and a particularly useful National Theatre programme includes a fine article by Frank McGuinness on how a twentyfirst-century Irish Catholic adapts the work of a seventeenth-century Spanish Catholic, and a really excellent one by Giles Fraser explaining the play's theology.) 

Paolo, an ascetic hermit, is tricked by the devil, who tells him that he will have the same everlasting fate as one Enrico. Paolo goes in search of his spiritual doppelgänger, and finds that Enrico is the worst of sinners, an unrepentant thief, murderer and general baddy.

 He's obviously destined for Hell, and Paolo decides that if he's also damned, he might as well earn it, and sets out to match Enrico sin for sin. 

When their separate deaths approach, one of these men will repent and beg God's forgiveness while the other will judge himself beyond redemption. And so, based entirely on that moment and regardless of the rest of their lives, one will go to Heaven and the other to Hell. 

And that is really about it. Tirso makes his point, but the problem is that it's not a particularly theatrical one. Neither man shows much growth or complexity or depth, while even in McGuinness's somewhat modernised text, the actors are given little to do but make long static speeches describing their current emotional or spiritual state. 

So there really isn't much of a play here, by modern standards, and you can't help feeling as you watch it that it would work better as a short story. 

Sebastian Armesto as Paolo and Bertie Carvel as Enrico do what they can, but the characters are so little individualised that the performers are likely to get lost among the various citizens and fellow villains onstage. 

Director Bijan Sheibani and designer Giles Cadle betray a hint of desperation to make the play come alive by inconsistently modernising it in an urban landscape of motorcycles, pizzerias and police helicopters.

But the play, which just might have worked in the intense, intimate setting of a studio theatre, is lost in the vastness of the Olivier.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Damned By Despair - National Theatre 2012

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