Theatre in Wales

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A meticulous and insightful production

At National Theatre

National Theatre Wales- The Devil Inside Him , New Theatre Catrdiff , May 19, 2010
At National Theatre by National Theatre Wales- The Devil Inside Him John Osborne, famed for the unsparing and lacerating quality of his writing, did not exempt himself “Speeches were too long; wordy scenes; slack; audiences left hanging in the air; ending unresolved.” That was how he described the reaction to his teenage play “the Devil Inside Him” by its first reader, his fellow actor and girlfriend of the time, Stella Linden.

Sixty years on from its Easter Monday premiere at Huddersfield’s Theatre Royal Elen Bowman’s production is meticulous, insightful and closes on a note of sheer directorial imagination. The focus is inevitably going to go to the script. The company’s third production is as strong in realising the period as is the text in evoking it.

Black market goods are up for sale in the unnamed village just beyond easy reach of Swansea. Spare rooms are let out to lodgers to supplement the scanty income from shop-keeping. John Osborne’s own childhood room was let to a Welsh commercial traveller, obliging him to sleep on the sofa. In life the lodger was a Mr Evans, in fiction he is called Mr Stevens, a five minute part which sadly is all that the audience gets to see of the admirable Steven Elliott.

The production captures on stage a world similar to that which Alan Sillitoe, who died this month, captured in prose. His heroes too faced that crucial class leap to white- collar work. Osborne’s young hero Huw Prosser has failed to make the world of insurance and works for Mr Davies, the butcher.

The play makes much of the Prosser house being locked. “Silent as the grave” promises Rachel Lumberg’s garrulous Mrs Evans, a knowing sign that no secret is safe with her. This is a world where pregnancy outside marriage is a calamity, where a stone-deaf neighbour can suddenly hear if it suits her purposes, where even to enter the Catholic church is a cause for shock.

Alex Eales’ design captures this monochrome world in all its detail. Condensation runs down the wood frame windows. Clothes are dark and grey. In the under-heated house sleeveless pullovers are worn beneath jackets. A pair of Staffordshire dogs sits on the dresser top. Standard willow pattern plates adorn the shelves. The furniture is dark beech. The clock on the mantelpiece with its hinged circular glass front gets its daily winding-up from Derek Hutchinson’s fierce paterfamilias, the shopkeeper who has not left the village in twenty-three years. In a reverse of Osborne’s own family it is father who is the loveless parent, soaked in a punitive religiosity. “Sin will bite you like an angry snake” is just the start of a cheerless family tea.

Malcolm Rippeth’s first-act lighting beautifully captures the gradual onset of dusk and the low light from the gas lamps. Later Huw and the sympathetic medical student, Jamie Ballard’s Scottish Mr Burn, are subtly lit by the glow of the coal fire. Composer Simon Allen’s lambent music mixes spare piano notes with a mournful string accompaniment.

This meticulousness of the production extends to the acting. Helen Griffin as Mrs Prosser has a voice of appropriate softness, spoken with a perfect articulation. Beneath the subdued family role she ends on a note of strength “I am your wife but I am still myself.” John Cording's Minister Gruffuydd unleashes a ferocious assault on troubled Huw. “Your son is a maniac all right. A soul all eaten up with disease” he advises the family.

As for Huw himself Osborne has deliberately written him as the opposite of himself. Whereas he, as a bullied under-educated schoolboy, had long legs and yearned for a larger head, the wretched ostracised Huw is written as having a large head and short legs. Iwan Rheon captures his utter displacement with ramrod straight arms and head tilted forward.

Fully rounded literature written by teenagers is rare. The writer of a first drama is, as Tom Stoppard put it, “getting his admirations out of the way.” Osborne himself had no doubts. “A melodrama about a poetic Welsh loon” is how he described the play later.

However, the language contains pointers a-plenty to what was to come. It is richly metaphorical, anti-naturalist. “I can show you the urgent smell of the morning”, “the way an angry bitch eats her pups”, “your voice is soft, soft like music”,“words are wonderful things falling on me like dew”, “clouds rush over your head like wild frightened things” ; the rich phrasing runs and runs. The bloody description of a pig being slaughtered is a forerunner of Jimmy Porter’s searing experience of his father’s death.

Above all, what is precociously apparent is the strength of the writer’s vision, “the limelight-cruel examination of the place of truth in our lives.” Even at eighteen he is aware of the “black terrible nothing” and knows that “people always hate what they can't understand.” Burn, his humanitarian voice, tells the raging Minister that “each person has to find God in his own way.”

“The Devil Inside Him”, important historically and crucial in understanding the genesis of the playwright, is unlikely to join the dramatic canon. As for Osborne’s attitude to his own Welsh heritage he can hardly mention it without a note of disparagement. An Aunt “kindly in a twinkling sort of way with a streak of Welsh deceit and petty vindictiveness which were harmless enough” is typical. The play, prodigious for an eighteen year old, is uneven in most respects. Huw’s great outburst near the close, grandiloquent as it is, has no counter-balance in the first act. The second act behaviour of Burn, on the basis of the glimpse of a few lines poetry, is beyond credibility.

Nonetheless it is a fine production which Elen Bowman caps with a startling Symbolist image. The writer ascends to assume the authority of the priest. Whether it is true in itself, or true to the text, is open to question but it is a grandly confident directorial flourish.

The hallmark of the company’s first year is diversity; diversity in audience, diversity in activity and in production. “The Devil Inside Him” is evidence that the company can mount a traditional proscenium play with a flair and precision of detail that is equal to any.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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