Damned By Despair, Tirso de Molina’s Spanish Golden Age drama about religion and forgiveness was always going to struggle to get National Theatre audiences excited. Even - or perhaps especially - in this new version by Frank McGuinness.
A scene from Damned by Despair at the Olivier, National Theatre, London Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
The Irish playwright has half-updated the 1625 tale about a hermit and a gangster whose fates are intertwined. But the football shirts, Simon and Garfunkel classics and ‘street’ language only serve to alienate audiences even further from a dated plot with a damaging message about redemption and fanaticism.
Director Bijan Sheibani does his darndest to make the script relevant to 2012 ticket-buyers - even relocating Naples to a cheap-looking pizzeria. And yet he never manages to make you feel emotionally involved with the two unsympathetic central characters.
You can tell right from the start that the production is damned. Sebastian Armesto’s opening monologue is so disengaging that your mind can’t help but compare Giles Cadle’s set design to the opening scene of The Lion King (both are great, and they look similar).
However it is in the second half that you really find yourself losing interest. Partly because Amanda Lawrence’s diva-like devil is largely absent. But mostly because the in-your-face ‘sermon on stage’ is so far removed from what we go to the theatre for. Even uber-talented Bertie Carvel (Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull) fails to enthrall as baddie Enrico.
The National deserves credit for bringing old plays to our attention. However it does not need to strive quite so hard to make them feel contemporary. Particularly when the play is called Damned By Despair - that just makes a critic’s job too easy.