David Hare’s monologue, Beat The Devil finds itself as one of the first productions to open indoors since the Government eased lockdown restrictions. The Bridge Theatre’s flexible space is reconfigured with seats removed to allow for social distancing, meaning actor Ralph Fiennes is looking out on a rather sparse auditorium indeed.
Directed by Nicholas Hytner, Beat The Devil is a semi-autobiographical account of the playwrights own experience of contracting Covid-19. Perhaps in an effort to future proof his work, Hare describes the Coronavirus pandemic as if none of us watching had any clue of its existence. The various symptoms Hare experienced, in his very middle-class encounter with the virus, are interspersed with medical facts and figures.
But this vivid description of symptoms is only half the story, with the rest of the 45 minute play a diatribe of the failings, lies, and general incompetence of our current Government. Told with irony and sarcasm, each catastrophic Government misstep elicits the odd uncomfortable laugh from the audience. We laugh because it’s as unbelievable as it is true, but the sad fact is we are still living through this mess, it’s impossible to really appreciate the irony when the devastating consequences still lie before us.
The repetitious account of the failing of Johnson et al, becomes remarkably dull. You could visit the BBC News app (or more likely, The Guardian) and find the same cutting indictment of a Prime Minister more concerned with holidays and bluster than getting the country out of an almighty mess.
The only thing that prevents Beat The Devil from being a night of complete tedium, for Hytner’s direction is equally as sluggish, is Ralph Fiennes performance. Unsurprisingly, in his Bridge Theatre debut, Fiennes succeeds in getting the audience on board and delivers a masterpiece of performance.
Hare says, via Fiennes, that he wrote this so that Coronavirus isn’t forgotten as The Spanish Flu has been. Perhaps audiences a century from now will appreciate the contemporaneous medical commentary, and marvel at just how incompetent the Government really were, but I suspect the history books will already have that covered.