March 9, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

I’ll be the Devil (RSC) @ the Tricycle Theatre

I’m still due to write something less ‘highlighty’ about the Histories, but time has overtaken me. Yesterday, I made my first trip of the new year down to London for I’ll be the Devil, a new RSC commission by Leo Butler. I reviewed the original rehearsed reading of the production back in November 2006, when it was called One of These Days . I said at the time that I was really looking forward to a full staging of the play; unfortunately, the final realisation of the play wasn’t quite as powerful as I’d hoped.

The play hadn’t changed substantially in plot or structure, but the script was much tidier. The links to The Tempest were brought out very clearly by having Dermot practically quote Caliban as he talked of being chained up, of bringing in wood and of the witch his mother. The plot remained relatively straightforward, focussing on the plight of two eighteenth-century lovers: Coyle, an Irish soldier drafted into the invading English army, and Maryanne, his brother’s widow, reduced to poverty and looking after their two children, the mentally-disturbed Dermot and innocent Ellen.

Leo Butler’s main thrust is to demonstrate the horrors visited upon the Irish by their oppressors. Maryanne, played somewhat scarily by Derbhle Crotty, embodied much of this. Resentful of the riches she had lost, she treated Coyle with nothing but contempt for his joining the army, taking pleasure in torturing him with impossible questions and demanding his loyalty to his family (yet not above asking him how his wife was). The two showed contrasting approaches to living under a regime- the more pragmatic Coyle (a good Eoin McCarthy) had sacrificed his ideals and beliefs in order to survive, while the idealistic Maryanne had stuck to her roots and suffered in extreme poverty as a result. Maryanne, filling the Sycorax role, was the catalyst for the play’s horrors, begun before we joined them by her persuading Dermot to kill the local colonel’s livestock, beginning a chain of events that led to the death of both children, Coyle’s disgrace and total loss of everything she had left.

The one-act play built itself round two big scenes. The first, set in a tavern, was an exercise in atrocity as five redcoat soldiers bullied Dermot, who wanted to declare his loyalty to the King. Coyle, entering halfway through, was eventually forced to intervene to save his son’s life, turning the attentions of the soldiers onto him instead. The evils visited upon father and son – being made to drink cups of piss, having a crucifix inserted up the arse, being dangled upside down from an upturned table – were effective in demonstrating the climate of fear and abuse that the native Irish were living in; however, the point wasn’t subtle and the scene dragged on for a long time, starting to feel indulgent. An unusual high point, though, was Dermot’s fight with a legless actor, a visually fascinating scene that was particularly exciting for the way the soldiers immediately started cheering them on as if at a bear-baiting. To them, both the physically- and mentally-disabled were little better than animals.

The better scene came later, and achieved its effect not through brutal violence but through silence and subtleties. After interviewing Coyle about his connection with Dermot and the locals, the play moved to Maryanne’s cabin, where the thunderstorm that had been raging throughout rained down on the roof of branches that extended over the stage. We saw Fleming mostly undressed, with Coyle and another soldier standing to attention in a corner, Coyle still bedraggled from his earlier treatment in the tavern. Maryanne moved about the room, asking if everything had been to Fleming’s satisfaction. So far, so grim. But then, Maryanne apologised for ‘her’ tardiness. She moved to the bed where Fleming had been sitting and called for Ellen, then pulled back the covers to reveal the eight year old lying there, eyes wide open, dead. After a few beats, Maryanne gently re-covered her and started dressing Fleming herself. Meanwhile, the other soldier gave Coyle a shovel, and the crying father started digging a hole in the middle of the hut as Maryanne entertained Fleming. The whole scene, played gently, was heartbreaking, the father digging a grave while the mother looked after their child’s killer, neither able to properly express any emotion while their persecutor was present.

The performances were generally fine, Derbhle Crotty and Eoin McCarthy being the standouts. John McEnery was also excellent as the old Fleming, ostensibly quite fragile but wielding the power of the British Empire in his thin frame, and thus carrying an air of power and menace with him. I also thought Tom Burke made a decent Dermot, laughing slightly manically when scared and keeping up a great deal of restless energy, particularly in the gruesome moment where he tied himself up in penance and then gouged out his own eyes. Aside from Gerard Murphy’s Browne, the most interesting of the secondary characters was Lt. Ryan, played by Andrew Macklin, whose story arc was underwritten but still effective. Ryan, the son of a rich man, had enlisted in the army at his father’s instigation and was under Coyle’s command, but resented taking orders. After being disciplined by Coyle in front of Maryanne in an early scene, Ryan then betrayed Coyle to the rest of the soldiers in the tavern, causing Coyle’s subsequent torture. Ryan was then promoted over Coyle, and he was the soldier who handed him the shovel after Ellen’s death.

Yet despite much to like, the production still didn’t quite work. There were a few technical blips such as lights dying in the middle of a crucial scene, and several actors (particularly Samantha Young) were very difficult to hear. The Oirish accents often sounded forced, which is interesting as the actors’ names largely looked Irish- were they fake accents being poorly done, or were they just struggling to get their tongues around the text?

My primary problem, though, was that I felt unsure what the play was actually for. The point seemed to be to show the atrocities committed by the English against the Irish, but the story was so specific that it felt too remote to really affect – almost like being asked to take sides in the Cavalier/Roundhead conflict. If there was a contemporary relevance to be drawn then I didn’t get it. In many ways, it felt just too small a story, and that there would have been potential for debates to come out of it that would have said something important about now. However, it seems unnecessary to lament what the play wasn’t. What it was was an interesting, decently-performed story rooted in Irish history with a few fantastic moments, but I don’t think it will live long in the memory.

Posted in Theatre review