A diabolical mess

Poor direction of a new play by the RSC in London leaves the audience cold

<strong>I'll Be the D

This new play suffered one of the most tepid receptions I have ever seen from an audience. I think we resented having been trapped in a room for 110 minutes with a work that took itself so seriously it did not even allow us an interval. It was like being held hostage by a violent lunatic who told us, at length, that we had made him mad. A couple of people walked out when an actor gouged out his eyes. Never mind unprofessional, would that I were still capable of making such corny getaways.

The RSC will be disappointed at the failure of the acclaimed young writer Leo Butler to connect with an audience with this effort (closes 8 March). I'll Be the Devil seems to have everything: Shakespearean echoes for the RSC subscriber base, a theme of Irish oppression for the Tricycle's Kilburn Road clientele, and echoes of Iraq for everyone. Butler throws in just about everything else, too: rape, murder, animal buggery, a crucifix rammed up a man's bottom, someone urinating on a prayer book and - I blush to make light of it, because the legless David Toole as Potboy puts in a remarkable and physically brave performance - dwarf tossing. Its leitmotif is dead pigs.

If you had asked me immediately afterwards how these elements wove themselves into the plot, I would, to be honest, have been hard-pressed to tell you. Ramin Gray's direction favoured mayhem over narrative and Oirishness over communication. Fortunately the script is available from Methuen. The action concerns the dilemmas of a Lieutenant Coyle, an Irish Catholic circa 1762, who has joined the occupying British army. He has fathered two cretinous children by his dead brother's wife, Maryanne, who has been dispossessed of her land. The couple hate each other. Coyle is worried that their son, Dermot, has taken to sodomising cattle, beheading pigs and freeing farm animals from their pens.

The miscreant's relationship to Coyle becomes public during a heavy night's roistering at the garrison. So do Coyle's papist sympathies. Coyle is hauled before his toff English colonel, who asks to visit his family. In their hovel, the colonel rapes Coyle's daughter, Ellen, who expires in the bed. He regrets this and his nose is rubbed in his shame by Maryanne's poise of elaborate servility. The action is topped and tailed by scenes in which the blinded Dermot, ranting about the devil, is tended in the stocks by the not yet dead Ellen. The scene recalls Calvary.

Gray's direction is so messy that it is hard to pass judgement on the players, save to say the cast does what it can, particularly in the long third act where the troops get drunk - much tankard thumping, thigh slapping and singing - and then turn nasty. In the play's most audible scene, John McEnery is creepy as the colonel suavely interrogating Coyle. If there is an acting problem it is with Andrew Macklin, who fails to generate any sympathy as Lieutenant Ryan.

The direction also makes it hard to judge the play. Having read it, I believe it to be less bad than it seemed, but not very good either. Butler's Shakespearean inspiration is said to be The Tempest's theme of colonisation. But although Dermot is a kind of Caliban, this Ireland is not full of music. Set in constant rain and thunder, much of the action taking place in a ramshackle shelter, the obvious comparison is King Lear, eye-gouging and all.

As for Iraq, when Coyle's psalter is urinated on and he is made to eat it, we are surely meant to think of Abu Ghraib's desecrated Qurans. The colonel's speech about civilisation being a process that can take "generations even" is Pentagonese. The connivance of the local population in their own "subjection" draws a potentially offensive parallel with native Iraqis policing Baghdad. But the agitprop is less ham-fisted than the plonking in of historical detail, as when Maryanne recites every provision of the anti-Catholic penal law.

I'll Be the Devil is Brian Friel's Translations rewritten in blood by Edward Bond. Reading the text would not be an hour wasted, but unless you are a student of stage design (Lizzie Clachan's sets were miraculous on such a small stage) this production is not worth travelling to see. The answer to the play's much-repeated question - "Who's the devil?" - is "everyone": the Irish, the Brits, possibly even the pigs. The audience's response was clear: in that case, to hell with the lot of you.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it