Morality tales have been around for centuries. In fact, they were some of the first pieces of theatre, put on as a way of educating the illiterate masses about religion, good and evil, and punishment. Very little has changed – so the sets are bigger, we have many more lights, and the actors are (on the whole) professionally trained, but we are still drawn to stories of hope, desperation, conflict, and salvation. In a new version by Frank McGuinness, Tirso de Molina’s production Damned by Despair encompasses the Olivier Theatre in a swathe of doubt and redemption.
Paulo (Sebastian Armesto) is a monk searching for God’s forgiveness in the barren deserts of Italy – living in exile for 10years with fellow monk Pedrisco (Rory Keenan) for company, Paulo devotes his life to appeasing God and making peace with his soul. One day, he is visited by an angel – or so it appears. Told to go in search of Enrico in Naples, he will find the man with whom his fate is shared. And so begins a twisting tale of what it means to be saved, and the depths of human despair.
Armesto provides us with an astonishing portrayal of a man torn between reality and faith, manipulated and controlled right until the very end, and Keenan supports him in a moving performance as friend, accomplice, and confidant. The challenging part of Enrico was taken by the horns by Bertie Carvel; evil without grating on the nerves, he was disturbingly likeable, his fate understandable and commendable. A man of few words was Anareto, Enrico’s father, portrayed by Michael Gould in a wonderfully simple manner that highlights the fact that there are never ‘small parts’ in a play such as this. Similarly, Pierce Reid (Octavio) and Alex Warren (Galvan) held their own in their short but powerful scenes.
Directed by Bijan Sheibani, Damned by Despair contains everything a morality tale could hope to depict, and the set (Giles Cadle) did well to emphasise the story without distracting – faces in the smoke eerily acknowledge the ever-present Devil (Amanda Lawrence) lurking in the shadows. As the final show in this years’ Travelex season, this was more than just your run-of-the-mill newly translated play, leaving you questioning your beliefs, your morals, and your mortality.