The Theatreguide.London Review
I'll Be The Devil
Royal Shakespeare Company at the Tricycle Theatre Spring 2008
Since leaving the Barbican a few years ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company has been playing its London seasons in a string of temporary bases. Later this Spring their Shakespeare season will be at the Roundhouse, and now a programme of new plays is at the Tricycle.
Leo Butler's condemnation of past English evils in Ireland is strongly written , and if its anger sometimes leads to dead-horse-beating and its passion sometimes overflows into incoherence, its best moments are powerful enough to move you at the time and stick with you long after.
The play is set in the brief period in the Eighteenth Century when an overstretched English army was forced to recruit Irishmen, even Catholic Irishmen, to help police and subdue the Irish Catholic population.
Butler shows us a string of essentially unrelated indignities and atrocities, tied together by happening to a single group of characters.
An Irish woman living in poverty because Catholics are not allowed to own anything is visited by the father of her children, who must disown her publicly because he's in the army.
Were his pain at being afraid even to hold his daughter not enough, the woman rattles off a catalogue of anti-Catholic laws that make South African apartheid seem democratic.
In another scene the officer's son tries to join the army only to have the soldiers, all Irish themselves, ridicule and abuse him, just to sustain their own covers and credibility.
And when his father tries tentatively to intervene, they turn on him with a viciousness that betrays how thoroughly they have absorbed the conqueror's ethos.
A final scene shows both parents forced to watch quietly and subserviently as an English officer calmly subjects them to almost unimaginable horrors.
Even after reading that short summary, you may be inclined to respond 'OK, I get the point', and there is an element of overkill to Butler's play - not that the horrors aren't real or his outrage justified, but just because there is only so much anger an audience can take in one sitting.
And when his passion sometimes leads away from clarity and focus, as when the scene involving the soldiers repeatedly descends into chaotic violence, his case, as strong as it is, is weakened.
Ramin Gray"s direction can't always keep the play from spinning out of control, and is best in the quieter moments.
Derbhle Crotty and Eoin McCarthy as the Irish parents capture all the frustration and pain of their first scene, and Crotty is particularly moving at the end when her character finds the strength to retain her dignity and the moral high ground in the face of extraordinary deprivation.
Gerard Murphy as a belligerent soldier and John McEnery as the English commander especially frightening because his evil is so dispassionate contribute to the play's strengths.
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