Usually, press nights at the National – even at the cavernous Olivier theatre – are packed to the rafters. But as this show was about to start, I noticed lots of empty seats dotted around nearby where I was sitting and also a whole raft of vacant seats right at the back. There was a whiff of foreboding in the air.
The first half of this adaptation of Tirso de Molina's play, thought to have been written about 1625, zips through in a trice. I don't take accurate timings of productions as I once used to, but would hazard a guess at around 40 minutes. With the advertised running time of 2 hours and 35 minutes stated in the programme, it looked like we were in for a long haul in the second half. But, not so, it was all over by about five minutes past 9 which meant the full running time was around 2 hours, or even a tad less. That means almost a fifth of the play has been hacked off it – and recently.
The story involves a hermit called Paulo (Sebastian Armesto) who has spent a decade or so living in the wilderness doing some kind of penance or other to please God and secure his place in Heaven. He lives with his side-kick Pedrisco (Rory Keenan) who yearns to eat something vaguely nourishing, and who can blame him. Then the devil turns up to test Paulo and tells him that he must go and seek out a man called Enrico and observe him because his end will match Paulo's own. So, Paulo heads off to the city and discovers Enrico at a pizzeria. Enrico says he was 'born a bad boy' and is the leader of a criminal gang. We see him kill a man for little more (it seems) than merely being at the pizzeria. However, he is not totally evil - he loves his Dad! Awwwww.
Seeing Enrico in action, Paulo decides there is no point in being a hermit any longer because if his fate is going to be like Enrico's he thinks he is already damned, and so might as well enjoy life. I suppose that could mean all kinds of possibilities such as wine, women and song, but Paulo decides to follow Enrico's profession and become a criminal on his own account. And he adapts to the role spectacularly well, becoming a “boss of brutal outlaws”.
I noticed a few people did not bother to return after the interval, and though I rarely read preview comments so that I can maintain some kind of objectivity, I could not resist having a quick look at some on the way home on the bus. Apart from the odd one or two which were encouraging, most are damningly critical with several calls for the show to be taken off – and quickly.
However, the play is not quite as bad as those comments might suggest – believe me, I have seen far worse. But 'Damned By Despair' is mostly unsatisfying because the audience does not know how to respond to it. Giles Cadle's set is a cartoon-like creation with simply painted scenery. That implies that director Bijan Sheibani sees the piece as more of a fable or perhaps comedy than serious drama. But there is insufficient comedy to sustain it on that level, and the rest of the story is implausible for a modern audience to accept. That and the religious elements make it almost incomprehensible and therefore open to ridicule. It would be an understatement to say that this is not the best work we have seen at the National, but risk-taking is what theatre is all about and this venue is hardly risk-averse. Sometimes, sadly, the risks do not pay off.
"Underpowered production...it is an odd, jerky play, encumbered by some unhelpfully lengthy speeches and soliloquies. "
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"It's a tremendous play – but patchily executed. "
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Bijan Sheibani's erratic staging of a tonally messy new version by Frank McGuinness. "
Paul Taylor for The Independent