Each His Own Wilderness

By Doris Lessing Directed by Paul Miller Presented by the Orange Tree Theatre on 17 April 2015

These people talk about politics with all the passionate intensity other people reserve for sex.

It’s 1958. Tony, back from National Service disillusioned and dissatisfied, finds his mother still the political activist she’s been since her youth. To Myra, Tony’s attitude is a mystery — where’s the anger?

Myra and her friend Milly’s restless Bohemianism leads them to a complex, erotic entanglement with the younger generation and exposes fault-lines in their own generation’s complacency.

They’re about to learn that the personal is political.

Clare Holman as Myra. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Clare Holman as Myra. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Books and papers are strewn across the floor. A radio is playing, and a tape machine is generating a crackle of gunfire. Tony enters, in uniform, and switches off the racket. We hear his mother singing a popular song before we see her, and she seems in a good mood. He asks her:

Who is it upstairs?

It’s Sandy, who’s the same age as Tony, and who’s moved into his room. Tony’s annoyed that she’s forgotten he was coming home today, and yet mother and son share an affectionate moment as he slumps in the chair and she soothes him.

Joel MacCormack as Tony. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Joel MacCormack as Tony. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

Joel MacCormack gives Tony a lopsided grin, a twist of the mouth that amplifies his disdain for his mother’s domestic arrangements. In the programme, Rachel Cooke describes him as “socially conservative” and yet one of the first things he says is that he wants to “opt out” and become a tramp. Myra’s delighted to hear of her son’s plans (she’s less enamoured by his idea to become an electrician). She declares she’s not interested in owning possessions (but she lives in an eight-bedroom house in London).


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Murder on the Med

Taking a boat trip on the Mediterranean is for most people a chance to catch some sun and fill their lungs with sea air. If you’re escaping poverty and persecution, seeking asylum in Europe or just trying to forge a better life, your experience is not likely to be so relaxing. An overcrowded and illegal boat trip heading for the coast of Italy is a life-threatening proposition.

As if this isn’t dangerous enough, add religion into the mix and you won’t need to wait for the next wave to knock you overboard — simply being a Christian could be your death sentence. In this report, Italian police have arrested 15 Muslim migrants after they allegedly threw 12 Christians overboard following a row on a boat headed to Italy:

The Christian migrants, said to be from Ghana and Nigeria, are all feared dead.

We don’t know the details of the quarrel, and it might have had nothing whatsoever to do with religion, but then it would be quite a coincidence for 12 Christians to have died and for 15 Muslims to have been arrested. Unfortunately, there is plenty of other evidence to support the hypothesis that some Muslims target Christians simply for being Christian. A recent This World documentary, titled Kill the Christians, reported on the ongoing situation in the Middle East, where “hundreds of thousands of Christians are fleeing conflict and persecution” — from Islamic State forces.

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Death of a Salesman

By Arthur Miller Directed by Gregory Doran Presented by the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on 15 April 2015

In the land of the free, each man is in charge of his own destiny. Willy Loman knows and cherishes this truth. After a life of honest hard work, it’s Willy’s birthright to retire with his loving wife and watch his two athletic, handsome sons continue his legacy.

Yet as old age begins to take hold and retirement beckons, Willy’s dream seems further away than ever. Decades of graft have somehow failed to translate into wealth and his eldest son refuses to follow the path his father has chosen for him. As actions buried in his past resurface, Willy struggles to reconcile his long cherished dream with the life he has actually lived.

In a compelling performance, Antony Sher generates both sympathy and despair as Willy Loman, often in equal measure and at the same time, as he talks and talks about what might have been and what will be, skipping the inconvenient present, and then he’ll reveal a degree of insight into himself — he knows he’s fat, or that he talks too much — that rescues his character from the tedium of a fantasist. It’s a hazardous acting challenge, testing our patience, taking us to the brink so that we just want him to shut up for one minute, while at the same time we feel, with Linda, that we mustn’t be too harsh on this guy, who talks big and tells his son not to say “Gee!” because that’s a boy’s word and yet he uses it all the time himself, as he is exposed, like Lear on the heath, vulnerable as a child, and finally crushed like a beetle. Utterly gripping from start to finish.

Unusually, I had the GBs before a word was spoken, before anyone had appeared. The apartment blocks that box in the Loman household and represent the impersonal forces that have foreclosed every last opportunity for this family, are themselves festooned with fire escapes, as if in perpetual mockery of the tiny creatures trapped below. The design, by Stephen Brimson Lewis, contrasts a large-scale menace with the dwindling comforts of home (everything breaks down just as it’s been paid off, in accordance with the newly discovered retail mantra of built-in obsolescence). A dog barks, a harsh sound almost drowned beneath the distant rumble of urban traffic. Into what should be a sanctuary from the cares of work and the bustling city trudges Willy Loman, with his two large suitcases, still full of samples and dreams of making it big, and delusions of being liked.


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Love’s Sacrifice

By John Ford Directed by Matthew Dunster Presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre on 14 April 2015

Struck by love at first sight, the Duke of Pavia has married the beautiful Bianca. But he’s not the only one who loves her. Unknown to him, his best friend Fernando has also fallen for Bianca, and with each day that passes he finds it harder to conceal his true feelings.

While the Duke is unaware of his friend’s dilemma, his sister soon realises what is happening. Racked with jealousy by her own desire for Fernando, she begins to manipulate her brother, encouraging him to act against his friend. With echoes of Shakespeare’s Othello, John Ford’s rarely performed play is a thrilling revenge tragedy powered by the destructive force of unrequited love.

After a disappointing Broken Heart, another of John Ford’s rarely revived plays, we had low expectations of this, which sank even further on learning that this may be the first professional production in nearly 400 years. Where the Globe’s Ford matched its energies to the candlelight of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and seemed, as a consequence, incredibly underpowered, this Swan show was dynamite. D’Avolos may not be the malevolent presence or have the intelligence of Iago, the Duke of Pavy may not experience sexual jealousy to the same degree as Othello, and the miscellany of romantic entanglements and variety of ways in which love is, or is not, requited may all be little more than entertaining distractions, but to even be up for comparison is a magnificent achievement.

The tone is set early on as Roseilli is victim of a “plot of disgrace” engineered by D’Avolos switching letters from the duke, so Roseilli believes he has been banished. It’s not that clear what the secretary’s motivation is, or why Roseilli doesn’t confront the duke in person and so uncover the deception. In performance, the action swiftly moves along and doesn’t let us get bogged down. Fernando appears and suggests England as a destination, a nation known for self-disparagement.

Jamie Thomas King as Fernando and Matthew Needham as Duke of Pavy. Photo by Helen Maybanks

Jamie Thomas King as Fernando and Matthew Needham as Duke of Pavy. Photo by Helen Maybanks

The duke appears with his court, Matthew Needham within the first few moments investing his character with command, playfulness and sarcasm, as he refers to “vain fool” and slow handclaps his sister for her less than enthusiastic welcome of his new wife:

You’re too silent.

Fiormonda is formidable in black, her hair tightly bound, Beth Cordingly creating one of the many strong female characters, constrained to act in certain ways but all showing some independence of spirit.

In the various commentaries the nature of this constraint is attributed to “society” or “religion” (see also Resisting marriage), when much more powerful psychological mechanisms are at work, with their origins deep in our evolutionary past. This is most clearly seen in a remarkable subplot involving three of the women at court and the philandering Ferentes. Colona, Julia and Morona are wooed in turn, each unaware that Ferentes has other women on the go, and apparently unaware that he may be deceiving them as to his true intentions: he’s operating a short-term mating strategy, while they are all on long-term strategies, and hence there is strategic interference (and some comedy).

Ferentes begins with Colona, urging her to meet him in a secluded spot. She resists, but not very much:

How shall I say aye when my fears say no. … If you prove false and love another…

Julia likewise soon gives in to his persuasive charm, her interest piqued when he refers to his “best ability” (with his hand over his crotch). She too demands reassurance that he only has eyes for her. Finally, the widow Morona succumbs — being older, and supposedly wiser to the wiles of men, she ought to have shown the most resistance. Being older, with her reproductive value rapidly approaching zero (he later mocks her for being “a stale widow of six and forty”), she is a correspondingly desperate participant in the mating market, and so may quiet any scepticism about the sincerity of  a potential mate and take the risk.

Matthew Needham as Duke of Pavy and the cast. Photo by Helen Maybanks

Matthew Needham as Duke of Pavy and the cast. Photo by Helen Maybanks

The ease with which Ferentes makes his conquests contrasts with the monumental task facing Fernando, who cannot face life without Bianca, the wife of his friend and lord, the duke. This is the central tragedy of the play, and, unlike Othello, far from fully worked out. We must accept that Bianca falls in love with the duke, and either doesn’t notice Fernando or hasn’t met him by the time she marries Carafa, and yet subsequently shows no feelings for her husband while falling head over heels for Fernando. It didn’t make perfect sense in performance, but then this was a totally unfamiliar play I was seeing for the first time, having read nothing about it.

Light relief comes on stage in the well-fed shape of Matthew Kelly’s magnificent Mauruccio, a preening older man with pretensions and a comic lusting after the duke’s sister (his yellow stockings completing the homage to Malvolio). Colin Ryan’s cheeky Giacopo is his scampish servant, delivering asides on his master’s absurdity (and his likely sexual prowess, endowed as he is with a “little pink radish”).

At first, Bianca rejects Fernando’s advances in the roundest terms. Catrin Stewart is convincing as wife who loves her husband and is embarrassed and angered by the inappropriate attention. She couldn’t be clearer when she says she’s not interested:

If you speak a fourth time, you will rue your lust.

She will definitely tell her husband and then he’ll be for it. Her indulgence is credible — up to a point. She respects Fernando and likes him as a friend and she knows how unhappy it would make her husband if he knew his best friend were behaving in this way. But four times? It’s beginning to sound like she quite enjoys being propositioned, a little more than she’s letting on.

While Fernando talks of a “rage of blood” the rear wall in filled with a chaotic, pulsing blood-red abstract projection. Amidst this turmoil, they play a game of chess, alone, but he can barely concentrate and leaps up:

Great lady, pity me!

Jamie Thomas King invests this wail with a deal of passion that distracts us from wondering what on earth he thinks he’s doing, falling for his best friend’s wife. It happens, of course, but he’s lucky Bianca has more sense — or has she? She continues resisting his “lawless lust” and the “bestial alliance” and he declares:

I’ll triumph being conquered!

And then, she flips, and the duke is left to resolve never to trust his wife with a friend again.

Meanwhile, Julia reveals that she’s “with child” and reassures her father that Ferentes had proposed marriage:

If vows have any value…

Nibrassa cannot quite believe his daughter has been so gullible:

You fool!

If only he had channelled Polonius and given his green girl (“shameless woman”) some advice about men. Colona tells her father, Petruchio, about why she gave in to the charms of Ferentes:

He hath sealed his oath to be my husband.

The two fathers chance upon each other in their parental misery:

A jolly clapper hath struck the bell on both sides.

Their two daughters are both with child:

One cock hath our hens.

GBs. They instruct them to plot their revenge:

To work, our wenches.

They leave Julia and Colona sat on the platform, legs dangling in the air, like children on a swing. Unlike children, their thoughts turn to darker purpose:

We are quite betrayed — mocked by an unconstant villain.

When they confront the villain, Ferentes is brazen in his dismissal of their claims on him:

I was ill advised to dig for gold in a coal pit.

He gives them three reasons why he is not interested in them as wives (i.e. as long-term marriage partners), which itemize precisely adaptive solutions to problems faced by males in choosing mates in whose offspring they want to invest.

He tells Colona:

You were too suddenly won.

He tells Morona:

You’re too old.

He tells Julia:

You have a scurvy face.

In a parting shot, he throws out a line that further distances him from taking responsibility:

You say I’m the father…

Here, a man uses paternity uncertainty to his advantage, by casting doubt on the identity of the children and deflecting attention away from his own promiscuity (impossible for a woman who is pregnant).

Jonathan McGuinness as D'Avolos. Photo by Helen Maybanks

Jonathan McGuinness as D’Avolos. Photo by Helen Maybanks

The more usual emotional fallout of paternity uncertainty is sexual jealousy, and D’Avalos is as direct with the duke as Ferentes was with his women:

You are a cuckold.

Like Othello, Carafa demands to see proof, but his mind is already digesting this new information, which is catastrophic for his inclusive fitness (not that he puts it in these terms — he simply feels the emotion). His sister chips in with some choice derogation of Bianca: a “sallow-coloured brat” who’s used her “brothel-instructed art” to confuse him into marriage:

You shall have a bastard.

Why is she bothered one way or the other? In part, again, because of inclusive fitness: assuming she is his full sister, she shares half her genes with him and so has a genetic interest in his offspring, so long as they are his offspring and not some other man’s. Her language illustrates a recent finding (Buss 2008:301):

The content of the verbal forms of aggression is revealing. The most frequently used nasty names and rumors spread by girls about other girls involved terms such as “bitch,” “slag,” “hussy,” and “whore.”

Mauruccio has been thrown into jail, and on being hauled out rhymes “puke” with “duke” expecting any moment to be sentenced to death. So, he is somewhat surprised to be offered the hand of Morona. The court is aghast that he’s so desperate he’s willing to even consider the match, let alone go through with it:

Can you believe she will be true to thy bed?

Promiscuity before marriage is a sign that infidelity may come after marriage, which is why chastity is prized by men seeking long-term partners. Mauruccio, however, like Morona, cannot afford to be so choosy — both are low in mate value and must settle for what they can get. Indeed, he makes a virtue of her pregnancy:

I like thee better for it… it shows a fertile womb.

Whether he will get to plant his own seed in that ground and see it flourish remains an unanswered question.

A less pleasant fate awaits Bianca’s womb, as Carafa, egged on by Fiormonda, plays out an ancient evolutionary script.

Cast: Andy Apollo, Ferentes; Sheila Atim, Julia; Guy Burgess, Nibrassa; Beth Cordingly, Fiormonda; Geoffrey Freshwater, Abbot; Marcus Griffiths, Roseilli; Rhiannon Handy, Colona; Simon Hedger, Guard; Julian Hoult, Attendant; Matthew Kelly, Mauruccio; Jamie Thomas King, Fernando; Jonathan McGuinness, D’Avalos; Annette McLaughlin, Morona; Matthew Needham, Duke of Pavy; Richard Rees, Petruchio; Colin Ryan, Giacapo; Nav Sidhu, Attendant; Catrin Stewart, Bianca; Gabby Wong, Attendant

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Resisting marriage

Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene in a new adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd “as a more poised, restrained figure, her resistance to marriage and determination to run her own farm born out of a refusal to kowtow to patriarchy.”

We cheer on Bathsheba as she resists marriage and admire her determination to run her own farm. Her independent spirit is on fire when she tells her would-be suitor Gabriel Oak: “I hate to be thought men’s property.”

Here, marriage is clearly a patriarchal institution of little benefit to women.

But consider a different perspective. In a recent Storyville documentary (My Mother the Secret Baby),  film-maker Daisy Asquith tells the personal story of her mother’s conception after a dance in the 1940s on the remote west coast of Ireland:

Her grandmother, compelled to run away to have her baby in secret, handed the child over to “the nuns”. Daisy’s mum was eventually adopted by English Catholics from Stoke-on-Trent. Her grandmother returned to Ireland and told no one. The father remained a mystery for another 60 years, until Daisy and her mum decided it was time to find out who he was.

Their attempts to find the truth make raw the fear and shame that Catholicism has wrought on the Irish psyche for centuries. It leads Daisy and her mum to connect with a brand new family living an extraordinarily different life.

No one is applauding this man for resisting marriage and remaining free to travel the world. No one is celebrating his brave refusal to kowtow to the matriarchy, which demands that he do the decent thing and marry the woman he’s got pregnant. His independence must be sacrificed to family life.

In evolutionary terms, on the face of it this seems like a classic instance of strategic interference: he was on a short-term mating strategy (looking for a one-night stand) while she was more likely to have been on a long-term mating strategy (codified by marriage). However, her actions — a willingness to have sex straightaway (assuming this wasn’t rape) and a failure to test for commitment — are more like those of a woman on a short-term strategy. In any case, as soon as she got pregnant she rapidly switched to the long-term strategy involving marriage and MPI (male parental investment) — only he wasn’t playing ball by this stage, and he scarpered to America.

While the Catholic Church certainly made life a good deal more miserable for everyone with its warped and perverse attitudes towards sexuality, and while I would normally never miss an opportunity to put the boot into this awful institution, for once it’s not the ultimate cause of this kind of behaviour. The evolutionary roots of these behaviours lie deep in the adaptive problems surrounding mate choice and child rearing.

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Christians founded our democracies

Just because William Wilberforce happened to be a Christian does not mean that the abolition of slavery was thanks to Christianity (see Christians ended slavery). Plenty of sincere Christians endorsed slavery for many centuries, with biblical justification. So with the founding of democracies: that many of those involved were Christians doesn’t necessarily mean that Christianity can take the credit. Plenty of sincere Christians endorsed Franco’s fascists in Spain and Mussolini’s in Italy and Hitler’s in Germany.

Michael Gove doesn’t worry about this distinction when he claims that Christians are “the kind of people who… founded our democracies” (he’s “proud to be a Christian”).

To take one example of a modern democracy, in Christianity Was Not Responsible for American Democracy Richard Carrier points out that “democracy never gets a single word in the Bible”:

To the contrary, under Moses and his successors all supreme offices in church and government were hereditary (or appointed by the inheritors), and instituted by God, not the People.

Identifying that democracy is absent from the Bible is the first step in challenging Gove’s claim. The second is to discover the non-biblical origins. Carrier suggests the following candidate:

Solon is the founder of Western democracy and the first man in history to articulate ideas of equal rights for all citizens, and though he did not go nearly as far in the latter as we have come today, Moses can claim no connection to either.

It is typical of followers of Jesus to attribute to him everything that is good and not to bother looking any further for alternatives.

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Govsmacked again

Three of the reasons why Michael Gove is “proud to be a Christian” are that Christians defeated Hitler, Christians ended slavery and Christians fight against poverty. Gove would certainly have three very good reasons to be proud, if only these claims were true. A fourth equally dodgy boast is that Christians “developed our modern ideas of rights and justice” and are particularly good at looking “beyond tribe and tradition to celebrate our common humanity.”

“Gobsmacked” doesn’t really capture the degree of utter astonishment that Gove’s claims provoke. Perhaps “govsmacked” could indicate an even higher level of incredulity?

Gove is obviously thinking of an imaginary religion that has only ever existed (like their God) in the minds of its devotees and its PR gurus (its priests). As an educated man (well, he was Secretary of State for Education), he cannot possibly be thinking of the historical religion that “has supported slavery, the oppression of women, ethnic cleansing, serfdom, the divine right of kings, and extraction of testimony by torture” and, for bad measure, has also “opposed anesthetics, lightning rods, sanitation, vaccination, eating meat on Friday, and birth control” (Stenger 2010:69)?

Valerie Tarico also begs to differ from Gove’s rose-tinted revisionism:

The concept of universal human rights has emerged in direct contradiction of traditional Christian teachings that give women, children, and non-believers second class status. The question of who is fully a person with equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, has expanded from white male landowners to include the indentured poor, slaves, Indians, women, children, foreigners, and gays.

Perhaps Gove hasn’t read his Bible recently, in which case this handy list of Bible verses will remind him of how the “good” book justifies a wide range of atrocities. (See also The Bad Book.) Jaco Gericke (in Loftus 2011:148) suggests:

Those who consider the Bible as affirming human dignity do not seem to understand that it knows no human rights.

As well as getting into bed with the Nazis and promoting slavery and fleecing the poor, Christians continue to violate other people’s human rights in all sorts of ways, of which Gove seems blissfully unaware. For example, the British Humanist Association is currently campaigning for an end to discrimination in schools, and last year prompted the Schools Adjudicator to take a close look at the country’s worst-offending Catholic secondary school: the London Oratory School. This was found to have broken the law in 105 ways, including by discriminating against poorer and non-white families.

Joseph Goebbels once said:

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

At least Gove has learned one lesson from history.

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A double deception

Some friars who ran the Franciscans’ endowment have engaged in “questionable financial activities” that have emptied the 800-year-old order’s coffers. The first surprise on reading this story is, what coffers, and what were they doing full of treasure in the first place? While advocating a life of poverty (after hearing a particularly scintillating sermon in 1209), did Francis of Assisi also add that his followers could interpret “poverty” in the broadest sense possible, and that they were actually at liberty to accumulate vast wealth?

The second surprise — given that Christians are always going on about how something should be done about it —  is that the missing funds don’t appear to have been used in the relief of poverty.

Despite this particular example of ecclesiastical cupidity, and the more general charge that the institutional church has often been remarkably adept at ensuring its own solvency, one of the reasons Michael Gove is “proud to be a Christian” is that Christians are the kind of people who are “in the forefront of the fight against poverty” — except, of course, for those Christians in the forefront of lining their own pockets with tax-deductible donations.

For Christians, it seems it’s always other people who should generate the wealth that is the best, non-zero-sum way to raise the poor out of poverty.

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Christians ended slavery

One of Michael Gove’s claims (see Why I’m proud to be a Christian) is that Christians “ended slavery” — he has no doubt consulted his well-thumbed Ladybird History Book of Great Men and read in those pages of William Wilberforce, the poster boy for this social revolution.

However, Wilberforce’s sincere piety notwithstanding, the idea that Christian principles were responsible for ending slavery is absurd on at least four counts.

  1. This is one moral issue the Bible gets unequivocally wrong. At no point in either the Old or New Testament is there a clear condemnation of slavery, and there are plenty of verses in support. (See, for example, Genesis 21:10, Exodus 20:10, 17, Ephesians 5:22, 6:5–8, 1 Timothy 2:11–15 and Why Christians Should Support Slavery.)
  2. Even if Christians in the 19th century were solely responsible for the abolition of slavery (which they weren’t — Jeremy Bentham was one prominent non-Christian abolitionist), after eighteen centuries, after many saints had come and gone, we are being asked to admire them for finally getting around to abolishing slavery? I’m not impressed.
  3. Many Christians in the 19th century not only continued to advocate slavery, they profited from the trade, although their enthusiasm is rarely advertised by religious apologists.
  4. The ownership of Christian slaves by Jews was forbidden for over a thousand years before Christians decided it was wrong for anyone — Christians included — to own slaves.

Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle, was “a Bible-thumping religious fanatic, and a zealous defender of slavery, which Darwin detested” (Rachels 1990:17). Given Charles Darwin’s own abomination of slavery, it’s not  surprising that he didn’t like FitzRoy and described the captain as “a man who has the most consummate skill in looking at everything and everybody in a perverted manner.”

That two circumstances occur in close proximity – Wilberforce was a Christian and Wilberforce helped end slavery – does not mean that one caused the other, even if Wilberforce himself thought so. In fact, there were many sincere Christian arguments for slavery. Why not consider basic human decency unclouded by the fog of scripture as a likely cause?

Frederick Douglass used the occasion of a speech he gave on 5 July 1852 in Rochester, New York, to assail the hypocrisy of a slave-owning democracy and in particular the complicity of organized Christianity (Dacey 2008:21–22):

The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines, who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system… In prosecuting the antislavery enterprise, we have been asked to spare the church, to spare the ministry; but how, we ask, could such a thing be done?

As Dacey comments, “No polite accommodation of religion here, when moral progress is at stake”.

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Review of The Devils

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews


The Devils – Bridewell Theatre, London

A libertine priest with an unhealthy interest in his young parishioners, central government riding roughshod over local concerns, a church resisting outside interference in its affairs – all aspects of 17th-century Loudun that are not unknown today. Completely unfamiliar, however, is the hooded man left dangling in the public square after being hanged for stealing, and the sight of citizens going about their daily business without batting an eyelid. And yet, in their modern dress, they look just like us. Together with an acting style that does not affect to reproduce the mannerisms of the time, this fine production nevertheless draws us into a world where everyone believes in the possibility of diabolical possession – the only question being, whether or not any particular case is genuine? Swirling smoke and a church organ establish an ominous mood, against which the opening, and beautifully sung, plainchant provides another texture in this complex and fascinating drama.

A cast of 14 take on 19 characters, and there are many strong performances throughout the ensemble. Sam Pearce is the young, handsome Father Grandier, who’s already made a big impression in the small town of Loudun. His congregation aren’t used to hearing politics and wit coming from the pulpit, and from such a charismatic preacher. Soon he’s attracting the attention of lonely widows and amorous virgins, as well as the humpback prioress, Sister Jeanne. Since Grandier turns out to be a predatory philanderer, whose priesthood both signals his unmarried status and disguises his real intentions, he is more interested in carnally possessing the widows and virgins than taking up Sister Jeanne’s offer to be director of her convent. By now, she ought to be used to rejection (God has been ignoring her prayers for years, refusing to heal her hump), but this seems to be the final straw.

Rowena Turner is compelling as Sister Jeanne, creating the powder keg psychology of a character hemmed in on all sides by doctrine and the walls of the convent. She has a febrile imagination, and pictures Grandier taking up ‘the shudder’ of his lover’s body. She can almost smell the rank sweat of their lovemaking. A critical mass is reached within her mind and she claims she has had ‘visions of a diabolical nature’ and that she has been possessed (in the spiritual sense) by Grandier, switching voices as the devil tightens his grip.

Although no one denies the reality of the devil, some suggest that Sister Jeanne may be playacting. Father Barre is not one of these sceptics but an enthusiastic exorcist who can’t wait to get started on the prioress and her writhing nuns (Michael Mayne’s magnificent booming voice comes in handy when confronting these raving women). The real power influencing events, however, lies elsewhere, with the king, Cardinal Richelieu and Bishop De La Rochepozay, who insists that ‘the assertion of the self is the ascendancy of the devil’ and who’s got it in for Grandier. Simon Hill’s bishop – slumped in a wheelchair, needing an oxygen mask after every other line – is a brilliant roll-on part, with Hill creating a convincing and forceful personality with an economy of technique.

We may smile at Father Barre’s description of one of his exorcisms, in which he persuaded a devil to jump from a cow that had gatecrashed a wedding into the bride’s mother-in-law, but the current pope still gives his official backing to the practice of exorcism, and so endorses belief in diabolical possession. The timeless bubble of church doctrine is one of the main themes of Aldous Huxley’s original book, and this production portrays the chilling consequences of unchanging and unchallengeable religious belief.

(See also The Devils.)

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