Damned by Despair

0 Love It
Save it
Damned by Despair

In the last week, the National Theatre has given us a brilliant revival in the Lyttelton ('Scenes from an Execution) and a first rate new play in the Cottesloe ('This House'). So let's not get too snarky about 'Damned by Despair', a rare wobble for Britain's flagship theatre.

Make no mistake, though: Bijan Sheibani's production of this seventeenth-century Spanish morality adventure is fairly awful. Not entirely awful: the acting is generally good, in particular Bertie Carvel, hugely watchable as soulful sociopath Enrico, and Rory Keenan, who grabs most of the laughs as long-suffering former hermit Pedrisco.

But what they and the rest of the ensemble have to work with is pretty risible. Frank McGuinness's adaptation of Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina's 1635 morality play about the intertwined fates of a hermit (Sebastian Armesto) and a hoodlum (Carvel) is awkward: stodgy slabs of old-fashioned English mixed with incongruous modern zingers. Sheibani has to take most of the blame, though.

Every 15 minutes or so he seems to wake up and remember that he wanted to direct a tongue-in-cheek adventure romp, but for the most part – and even with half an hour shaved off since first preview – 'Damned by Despair' is static, turgid and po-faced, taking the Old Testament morality of the source material entirely at face value.

The decision to set matters in a gangster-filled modern Italy might have worked if the production was more fun; instead the contemporary setting just serves to underscore how irrelevant to modern values Molina's play is.


Event phone: 020 7452 3000
Event website: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
To improve this listing email: feedback@timeout.com

Average User Rating

2 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:3
  • 4 star:4
  • 3 star:5
  • 2 star:4
  • 1 star:23
1 person listening

Well acted, but what a waste of their talents. It could have been extremely funny, or moving, or out-and-out tragic. It was none of these, simply a bit of a mish-mosh. Good set, though.

Saw it tonight and given the various things I've read about it since, I assume the director and cast have given it a good going over (no drownings for example), It is a bit uneven - with the 17th century and contemporary references jarring a bit sometimes - but some good performances and neat staging, albeit with a heavy-handed message (but that is more to do with the source material not really translating to the modern setting). Not the best, but definitely not the worst I have seen.

The speech is fast and the diction bad so one can hardly understand what is being said! On top of that, the play just does not hang together at all, it wants to be a moral play but does not quite make it. It is badly directed, and totally unbelievable. It is yet another recent play at the National which has been disappointing!

I recommend that the one and two star givers stay away from the National and stick to the Sound of Music, or whatever simple musicals are running at the moment. Luckily we bought the tickets before reading the silly knocking reviews. They almost stopped us from going. But we decided to trust the National. Thank goodness we did. Great acting - great sets - inventive - different - stunning 'devil' actress - exquisite deployment of the choir boy - violence not gratuitous - easy to follow. If you want to be amused, entertained and surprised, just go :-)

Left at interval. Really disappointing. Bertie Carvel struggles manfully, however.

This is actually the worst piece of theater I have ever seen - and I work in theater! Please don't see it, it's not worth it.

I loved it because I went with an open mind. The mechanical birds aren't the greatest but apart from that it's just the most exciting neo-Orientalist take on religious internals.

I assume that the newspaper critics showed restraint by not one-starring this production out of respect for the National. But if anything deserves a rock-bottom review, this does. Poor adaptation, incoherent staging, pantomimic acting and tedious dialogue at the end. Summed up by the ham-fisted attaching of a carabiner harness to Enrico before he is "hanged" on a limp noose. Sometimes, the schadenfreude of a really bad production can be amusing/entertaining. Unfortunately that was not even the case with this. A waste of money and two hours.

As Michael Billington says in The Guardian, there can be no doubt that Damned by Despair is a masterpiece. So go with an open mind and enjoy the challenging moral conundrum at its heart. The real message is that in the end it is love which prevails over religious dogma. That's why it is a relevant play for our times.

Andrzej, the point of it actually is that it's NEW Testament morality. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, no matter how terrible a human has been, forgiveness is there for anyone who reaches out to God. That's why the unexpected one goes to heaven instead of the religious one. I'm relieved it wasn't as hellish as those who saw previews suggested. But it wasn't NT paradise either.

i agree its uneven and this new adaptation grates a bit in places, but this is nothing like the show as described by earlier reviewers. I went last night and thought it was odd but rather good. I think the way that the NT has publicised the play isnt helpful as audiences don't seem to know what to make of it as they dont know if they are coming to see a 'serious' piece or a comedy. i came away with the feeling it was meant to be a dark comedy, with the very camp Enrico a soft spoken Kray type character. Its all a bit too shouty in parts, with some poorly execduted stage fighting, but also some really striking moments - all the devil's scenes, the hanging, the shepherd etc. Those who are flouncing out at the interval are missing the best bits. I saw Berenice on Monday and def prefered D by D.

It was awful! Well at least the first half was - we didn't stay for the second. I can’t think of one redeeming thing. Even the costume/prop design was bad and didn't help the miscast actors fit their characters better. What sort of believable gangster carries his gun in a bumbag?!

Damned by the National: Why is a play like this put on?I can only think that it is to keep up with the regular disasters. I am tired of leaving at the intervals. I thought Julie Walter's over acting in the Last of the Haussmans was going to be the worst of 2012. This dull simplistic play about damnation and redemption tops it.

This is a superb production. The ironically camp gangster Enrico is a brilliant psychological study of a serial killer whose quest for paternal love echoes the Cain and Abel theme of East of Eden and which turns into deep embitterment and acts of sadism on hapless victims. The same is true of the religiosity of his alter-ego, rebelling against his God with similar consequences. This is well-cast, well-directed and well-staged with some brilliant effects. See it in the context of its time; when the Spanish Inquisition held sway, when a sense of awe and the awful was the natural reaction to cathedrals, executions and majesty. Our sensibilities may have shifted, but the anachronistic modern translation works superbly. Were the murderers of Stephen Lawrence really much different to these people?

Attended tonight press night and I really don't recognise the show described by many of the reviewers below. I think that unfortunately the way in which the NT has advertised the play doesn't help as people don't know what to expect. If you go along assuming it's a black comedy about redemption, with the Enrico character as a gay gangster, a la the Krays then you get it. Rory Keenan is excellent. I do agree it is all a bit shouty and the NT would have benefitted from more voice coach work with many of the cast, esp the ensemble characters. It has its weaknesses, but nothing like as described below when in preview. And, the shepherd is a star!

If only the play were as entertaining as the reviews. The play (well, the half I saw) appears to centre on whether faith or good works will save you. Trust me, there's no saving grace to this particular evening at the NT.

Confused, overly long, no real story and terrible costumes. A disappointing night. Very unusual miss by The National Theatre. I have seen all of the productions playing there at the moment and this was the only dud. I can only imagine the press will agree tonight.

Agree with reviews about its sheer awfulness, BUT so bad it wasn't even funny. The NT really will have to withdraw this, as they did ROCKET TO THE MOON a couple of years ago, and it wasn't bad at all. It is embarrassingly bad, horribly miscast, a clunky version, dreadful stuck-in effects. No redeeming features at all - sometimes the music was nice and that distracted from the rest of the awfulness. I stuck it out to the end, but wouldn't recommend doing that. If you have already booked, go to the pub instead.

See below reviews. Abysmal on an epic scale. I left at the interval. Words fail me.

Awful plot, amateurish script, clueless direction and miscast confused looking actors who all were rather wonderful in something else, but not this mess. Almost as bad as Fram...

Terrible terrible acting....."ferocious gangster" is about a ferocious as a fluffy bunny. Left halfway through as it was very bizarre, intense and just plain rubbish

We almost left at the interval as the first half was so bad. But goodness the second was at least 10 times worse. My girlfriend has now decided she hates the theatre.

This play is perfect if you are a bible basher. The story line is seriously appalling. The actors are actually quite good but if the play itself is poor then they cannot rescue it. I was actually embarassed to be seen to be coming out of this play! NT, kill this play and refund my money.

Possibly the worst play I have ever seen. As others have said, little direction, little acting, lots of shouting and bad casting. The stage design and special effects were ok, but we left at the interval. Always a bad sign when you couldn't care less how a play ends and walk out. Avoid at all costs.

I saw this play on Saturday, after the technical difficulties with the set had been sorted out. I found it an odd but absorbing play, which presented the problem of finding the way to salvation in a dramatic and thought-provoking way. Some of the actors (including Enrico) were hard to hear from the circle, especially when the background sound effects were loud, but I didn't think that the writing, the direction or the acting deserved the heavy-handed criticism of some earlier reviewers. Some of the stage effects in the second half were tremendous, including an ascent into heaven and a descent into flaming hell-fires, and the morality tale came to a satisfying and not too delayed conclusion. My impression was that the audience enjoyed it, and I certainly did.

Surprisingly faithful to Tirso and powerful and moving at times. A very Spanish experience and definitely worth seeing.

An incoherent story, bizarrely and clumsily staged. The translated / updated script was no better. Surprised something so bad managed to get shown at the National.

Well, I don't know what people were expecting, but go to this with an open mind and you will probably be pleasantly surprised. Personally, I treated it as a comedy for the most part, which worked very well. The dramatic effects worked quite well, and some parts were excellent. A good yarn, overall. As to the relevance of the religious subject matter in the modern age, well, I found it an interesting juxtaposition.

This is either.. one, the biggest mistake the NFT has made... or two, some bizarre experiment at the audience's expense in psychological endurance... or thirdly, maybe rocky horror show kitsch that one day will be seen as a cult classic: I certainly found myself giggling frequently. The scene between camp gangster Enrique and his father who comes to visit him in jail is an unplanned comic tour de force. If I was an unkind fellow, I'd say this play appears to have been rewritten by a 15 year old heavy metal fan who has taken a classical text as his base and cast all his mates, some of whom would rather be doing anything else, in the various dysfunctional parts. The dialogue is childish, the use of pyrotechnics, special effects and incidental music almost puerile, the acting is terrible throughout, save maybe for a reasonable performance by Rory Keenan, but to be fair to the actors, it's the direction, or lack of it which is most at fault. When one actor is speaking the others stand around vacantly as if they haven't been told what they should be doing. It's an utterly inept production... the NFT's own "Springtime for Hitler"... aah, so maybe there's a fourth possibility.. I guess I am an unkind fellow, or maybe just a punter who feels horrifically cheated..

Saw this on Wednesday and had to leave at the interval because it was so appallingly written, cast and acted. Use of the english language would be shamed by a sixth form essay, a frighteningly camp gangster and an audience reacting, in bursts of laughter, as though to a comedy. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing.

I was certainly damned into despair. If the casting of Carvel as a camp gangster was deliberate, then it was misguided – it served only to confuse rather than make you think, and this is a bad note on his CV. Sebastian Armesto and Rory Keenan started it off well enough, just as you might expect in a 17th century play, but it went downhill faster than the people legging it in the interval. The scene in which Carvel drowns a lowlife in a drain, then pulls out a limp, badly made stuffed ‘body’ and thrashes it with a paving stone was pure comedy. The menace level was zero. There was little acting after the first fifteen minutes, just shouting, and a lot of pointless am-dram style running around (or ‘choreography’, as some call it). At least there was a slightly funny ad lib of ‘come on then’ when a harness malfunction halted the action. Sad to say that was the bright spot. How this got as far as being staged I don’t know – did no-one have the cojones to point out that it was so terrible? Ghastly. Avoid at all costs.

Great set design. I found my mind wandering several times, my eyelids drooping. Why cast a camp mincing Bruce Forsyth sound-alike as a menacing thug? It sorely tests one's suspension of disbelief. I appreciate the director trying to break convention, but to go so far against type did not work. Whereas Ben Kingsley playing a thug in Sexy Beast was a stroke of genius, here it backfires. The rest of the cast gave fine performances. But the theme of religious doubt and testing of faith was not particularly relevant in the modern context in which the play was set.

Wow! Were we at the same show? I saw the secondnight and loved it! ....and the whole audience seemed to stay on. I know that previews are like rehearsals and the show can change dramatically from day to day. I enjoyed the performances of the leads. I found the gangster character appropriately tortured, especially in act 2. No tech problems on our night in and I heard every word. Very good in my view!

Not theatres finest hour. 1st half bearable and funny in parts but i highly recommend leaving it there. 2nd half much too slow and torturously boring. Very odd casting.

Visually striking but hard to follow as everyone seems to either shout or whisper, strange juxtaposition of contemporary and 17c costume rankled. Well done to lighting and stage designer, the star is for you