We have been here before. Almost. In 1998, playwright David Hare turned a research trip to Israel and Palestine into the 90-minute monologue “Via Dolorosa,” which he performed himself. His return to the monologue form is, in every way, down to the ravages of COVID-19. Not only is a cast of interacting actors impossible on an indoor stage at the moment, the virus is also the subject matter of “Beat the Devil,” and Hare himself its subject.
Because Hare is still on the long road to recovery from the virus, this time he is not performing. In director Nicholas Hytner’s typically scrupulous production at the Bridge Theatre, the 900-seat venue built and run by Hytner and Nick Starr that opened three years ago. Instead, the playwright is portrayed by Ralph Fiennes, before an audience reduced to less than one-third the London venue’s capacity.
Hare is not attempting a “play” as such, more a rapid-response disquisition upon a (sadly) universal subject from an intensely personal perspective. But his report from the physical frontlines as he succumbs to infection — with its attendant horrors of soured taste (everything he tries to eat tastes of sewage), fever, vomiting and sheer, overwhelming exhaustion — is dovetailed with his increasingly enraged analysis of the failed political response to the crisis.
Although he includes a few contrasts with and sideswipes at Trump’s mismanagement of the virus, Hare is understandably focused upon the British handling of the pandemic and, chiefly, the dangerous degree of lying done by the government, and its refusal to deal with the truth before or during the crisis. Truth is a subject Hare has long focused on, notably in his 1978 play (and film) “Plenty” and, as he references here, his companion piece from the same year, the TV play “Licking Hitler,” which revealed the UK government’s World War II propaganda machine.
The trouble is that while the latter, one of Hare’s least remembered but finest achievements, uncovered a little-known scandal of misinformation, here there is, politically, nothing new. Few if any theatergoers will be unaware of the current government’s widely reported and commented upon U-turns and failures. Hare’s quietly expressed fury is entirely valid and as justified as it is righteous, but the element of surprise is in short supply, which robs the production of tension.
What gives the piece poignancy are the more personal elements, notably the flashes of humor — “I’m the color of Bela Lugosi” — supplied mostly by his wife Nicole as she cares for him during his 16-day crisis. As he ricochets from fever to an extreme shivering that multiple layers of clothing cannot quell, he recounts how she lay on top of him, telling him that she will make him warm. “My wife,” he drolly notes, “doesn’t seem to have grasped the idea of social distancing.”
Fiennes, 15 years Hare’s junior, leads with Hare’s own patient delivery and adds his own trademark controlled physicality. Hytner encourages him to suggest rather than act out the distress, which gives the writing an edge in charting the progress of the virus as it devastates Hare’s body and mind. As the fever breaks, Fiennes gently shows Hare’s joy at being alive, but the writing refrains from turning sentimental. “I don’t have survivor’s guilt,” Hare explains. “I have survivor’s rage.”
“Beat The Devil” is an attempt at the theatrical realization of the mantra that the personal is political. But with its the narratives twinned rather than fully theatrically intertwined, it’s more a case of the personal and the political.
Social distancing reduces the seating capacity in the Bridge to a widely-spaced 250, which means the initial atmosphere is a trifle becalmed but Fiennes’ steady, stealthy performance gradually pulls the audience in. The level of applause indicates the degree to which theatergoers are delighted to be back in a theater.