High politics and low cunning on the London stage

Andrew Billen reviews a trio of new productions: Damned by Despair, This House and The River.

New Statesman
Bertie Carvel in "Damned by Despair".

Damned by Despair; This House; The River
National Theatre, London SE1;
Royal Court, London SW1

Damned by Despair, a play by the Spanish bard Tirso de Molina, which opened in a new version by Frank McGuinness at the National’s Olivier last month, concerns a devout hermit fearful of going to hell. In Bijan Sheibani’s exceptionally tedious production, however, it is the audience who are damned. Against sets that are meant to recall El Greco but actually invoke the comic art of Look and Learn, wildly miscast actors limp through the motions of a text apparently no more profound than the jingle that runs through Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock: “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, mercy I asked, mercy I found.”

In hell, particularly, was Bertie Carvel, playing Enrico, the dastardly but glamorous bandit, with whom the hermit’s fate is somehow twinned. Carvel was about as dangerous and thuggish as a Strictly Come Dancing contestant, and he was not helped on the night I went by the chains in which he is held slipping miraculously at one point from his torso. Dangerously close to incompetent, this evening could turn a person off the theatre for years.

Not, however, if they got up early and queued outside the Royal Court for an unreserved seat at Jez Butterworth’s The River at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. After the success of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernières said repeating the trick was like trying to get an erection at lunchtime in the middle of Trafalgar Square. Butterworth, whose 2009 play Jerusalem proved the most acclaimed theatrical experience of the last decade, must have felt similarly fearful of detumescence at the prospect of a follow-up.

Nor can it have been easy for Dominic West, the male lead in The River, who had to match Mark Rylance’s wonderful performance in the previous play. Neither need have feared. While Jerusalem was a baggy monster of an event with, in Rooster Byron, a baggy monster of a central character, The River is a near-perfect studio piece, short, precisely written (as Jerusalem, for all its mad genius, was not) and extraordinarily potent.

At its centre is West, playing the inhabitant of a remote cabin, a man as smooth and contained as Rooster was emotionally incontinent, but also fond of those long Butterworth monologues that look so forbidding on the page, but in a great actor’s hands become arias. In terms of his job and background, we know little about the Man, not even his name. He draws. He is a countryman who can not only catch a fish but cook it; a scion, one would suppose, of gentry. But soon a more fundamental mystery arises.

In his declarations of love to his female guests, is he genuine or is he a fraud, a romantic or a serial seducer? The Man uses nature as bait for his women, in particular late night fly-fishing for sea trout. He is, it seems, after the one that got away, a beloved he also tries to draw back to life on his sketch pad. But the metaphor extends: a glorious sea trout is a muddy-bellied river trout that has been transformed by the ocean. What kind of fish is the Man and what has experience turned him into?

Our question-marks over the Man beautifully refract an audience’s puzzlement over what genre this haunting, eerie, yet funny play belongs to. Is it a thriller? West, after all, last year played Fred West on television, a man who lured women to his den. Early in the play, a girlfriend goes missing and the Man panics. The replay of an earlier tragedy? Or is it, reverting to Jerusalem, a play about a clash between modern, urban and traditional, rural values? A girl, after all, is bawled out by the Man for catching a trout with a Monster Munch. Is it a love story? Or a story about stories, about forcing ourselves and others into predetermined narratives? Whatever it is, Butterworth, the director Ian Rickson, West, Miranda Raison and Laura Donnelly have created a classic. The real thing.

This House is real, too, or so it felt when I went. James Graham’s clever play about the Wilson-Callaghan governments of 1974-79, as told from the Tory and Labour whips’ offices, was being watched from the mock Commons benches by Shirley Williams, Nigel Lawson, David Dimbleby, Charles Clarke, and David Steel (who sat amused at Gunnar Cauthery’s replica of him). Watching from further above was Walter Harrison, the Labour deputy chief whip of the day, whose obituary I had just read. I hope he would have appreciated Philip Glenister’s rough-hewn impersonation. This was a portrait of politics at grunt level, a desperate fight in which principle, comradeship and decency were trampled on by bullies.

Some of the political storytelling looked a little inexact to me, as if the intricacies of the Lib-Lab pact and a referendum on devolution were too distant to be explained now. One assertion, which got an easy laugh, seemed plain wrong. The Tory whip Jack Weatherill says there are no “Tory Scots”, but the February 1974 election in fact left the Conservatives with 21 seats in Scotland. Yet the play’s sense of the era, as one of decay and decline, as emphasised in the historian Dominic Sandbrook’s accounts of the period, and of dinosaur machismo, as celebrated in Life on Mars, was brilliantly caught.

Actually, it was all about mortality. The Labour lobby fodder, in particular, keeps dying, provoking one unwinnable by-election after another. The play’s climax is the drama over whether or not the whips will demand the presence of the terminally ill Alf Batley in the noconfidence vote. Airey Neave is blown up. Even Big Ben stops. What is dying, of course, is the postwar political consensus, and slouching towards Bethlehem is the member for Finchley.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times