Writer: David Hare
Director: Nicholas Hytner
David Hare’s most recent play for theatre, I’m Not Running, looked at British left wing politics as they had been many years earlier and, when it opened at the National Theatre in October 2018, he stood accused of living in a time warp. Not so on this occasion. Beat the Devil is as much 2020 as it can get.
The play, a 50-minute monologue, is built around the writer’s own battle with Covid-19 in March and April this year. In theory, the “devil” in the title is the virus, but the actual devil that Hare seems to have in mind is the Conservative Government and what should have been a fascinating insight into the physical and mental impact of the illness disintegrates into a rambling and unconvincing politically motivated rant.
The play starts promisingly with Hare telling of the first symptoms – the taste of sewage in his mouth, crippling lethargy – and continues at intervals with details of how he and his wife Nicole (Farhi) cope day-to-day. In between and possibly for more than 50% of the running time, Hare launches into a fierce assault on politicians (always emphasising that they are Conservative politicians), including some particularly venomous personal attacks on named individuals. Nothing that Hare says is factually inaccurate, but inconvenient truths are overlooked and his writing is short on wit and fresh detail, while being flavoured strongly with the benefit of hindsight.
We can stay at home and be lectured by Emily Maitlis on government shortcomings, so do we really want to go to a theatre for much of the same? If the answer is “yes”, it is probably because we are so starved of theatre at this time that we would go to see anything and, if we are going to receive a lecture, there could be no one better to deliver it than Ralph Fiennes. His sardonic style and natural gift for comedy paper over many of the play’s cracks and help him to find humour even in parts of the play where Hare has placed none. Director Nicholas Hytner’s production has a large desk centre stage, helping to generate the feel of an academic presentation.
The management and front of house staff at the Bridge Theatre must be congratulated for getting this production, the first in a season of monologues, up and running. Capacity is reduced to under a third of normal, with seats configured as pairs or singles well spaced out, and audiences are made to feel safe at all times.
The theatre is not the BBC and there is no necessity for balance, but, in this case, the omission of key facts that do not support the writer’s case undermines the credibility of everything that he has to say. Beat the Devil is a huge disappointment, but, thankfully, Hare lives to write another play and, hopefully, to return to better form.
Runs in rep until 31 October 2020