Theatre: Damned by Despair and Scenes from an Execution

The National Theatre | By Naomi Mdudu

THE LAST time I saw Oliver award-winning actor Bertie Carvel he was playing Miss Trunchbull in childhood classic, Matilda: The Musical. Last night we were reacquainted as he took to the stage as Enrico, a similarly vile character, in Frank McGuinness’ take on Tirso De Molina’s play, Damned by Despair.

Enrico is introduced with a long soliloquy, where he confesses his heinous crimes and debauchery to his group of hangers-on. Sadly, he pulls quite a good Kevin Federline post-Britney, rather than the chilling 17th century gangster we’re supposed to buy into. The other main character, Paulo, is a hermit who has spent the past 10 years praying for redemption in the desert before being tempted by the devil (played by Amanda Lawrence) to emulate Enrico’s bad deeds. All of this happens against a pizzeria backdrop and modern colloquial phrases like “no word of a lie” are thrown in, making the idea of a wandering hermit increasingly hard to accept. The only plus side is that these blunders provide some light relief from the heavy religious references, which, by the sound of people leaving, weren’t everyone’s bag. In its defence, the play does flag up interesting issues about the limits of redemption, faith and mercy but all things considered, Damned by Despair is a tough sell.

The National Theatre | By Steve Dinneen

Howard Baker is lauded by the late playwright Sarah Kane as a modern-day Shakespeare. It’s not terribly surprising she is such a fan – both are fond of taking the relatively mundane and contorting it into the unfathomably awful.

Like Kane’s seminal play Blasted, Baker’s Scenes from an Execution, directed here by Tom Cairns, starts with a scene of rather grubby domesticity, before transforming into something altogether more brutal.

Galactia, played by the excellent Fiona Shaw, has been commissioned to paint a vast canvas of the Battle of Lepanto on behalf of the people of Venice.

The painter, though, has a less idyllic version of the battle in mind than her superiors, and proceeds to conjure a bloody vista that would cause a butcher to part with his lunch.

The staging is suitably epic, with the narrator gliding onto stage in a glowing cube and the sheer size of the artistic endeavour captured wonderfully.

The historical backdrop takes a back-seat to Baker’s musings on the nature of relationships: between man and woman; young and old; art and the critic. But it is Shaw’s performance, and her chemistry with the humourless Venetian Doge, that make Scenes from an Execution consistently engaging, often moving, if never quite as heavyweight as it would like to think it is.