Brit actors often privately refer to their job in the theater as shouting at strangers. That certainly describes the condition of several of those trapped in Bijan Sheibani’s loudly ineffectual National Theater production of Tirso de Molina’s “Damned by Despair.” Sheibani’s basic storytelling and guidance of Frank McGuinness’ tonally shifting verse translation are so weak that a production intent on deploying everything it can lay its hands on proves supremely unengaging.
A classic of Spanish dramatic literature, the 1625 drama is an intriguingly stark study of faith and the possibility of redemption. Paolo (Sebastian Armesto), a monk whose decade of pious living in the wilderness has led him to a dangerous degree of pride, is promptly visited by the devil in disguise (a chilling Amanda Lawrence). She persuades him to go to Naples to observe and follow Enrico (Bertie Carvel) whose “end will match your own.” Upon arrival, Paolo discovers to his horror that Enrico is a vicious, no-holds-barred murderer.
Faced with Enrico’s unswerving selfishness — the only commandment he believes in is “honor thy father” — Paolo’s faith falters and, by the end, their positions have been tragically reversed.
The decision behind Paolo’s change in behavior is pivotal. Either he’s following what he believes is God’s test or his shift is a collapse in his belief. But here the motivation of Paolo’s choice unclear, and with the central dilemma so blurred it becomes well-nigh impossible to sympathize or care about him and, therefore, the action.
Sheibani is intent on underlining how high the stakes are. But by pushing his actors to the point of shouting, he achieves little but uncommunicative emoting.
Actor Carvel is most impressive when opting for the standard-issue silky-toned psychopath voice, not least in the nicely dangerous, near-silent staging of his first appearance.
But outside of casually vicious, Tarantino-esque violence displayed by both lead characters, the two actors lose threat the louder they get, their yelling generalizing emotion and ironing out detailed development. The exception to all this is Rory Keenan, whose performance as the sidekick peasant adds carefully judged bathos.
Updated to the present, everything is played out on Giles Cadle’s peculiarly blunt set. For all its tonal echoes of early religious painting — a triptych of arches for oddly airbrushed-style projections overhangs the (in)action — it’s the kind of design that looks good in the model-box but not on the stage, where its tone, scale and finish prove leadenly unatmospheric.
Several scenes are underscored by Dan Jones’ slow, sustained string music. Yet while clearly designed to enhance mood as it would on film, music neuters the text here.
There are definite signs of stern trimming during previews (25 minutes have gone from the running time), but even emergency surgery can’t always save the dying.