Hard to Beat

David Hare, Beat the Devil (directed by Nicholas Hytner, Br/dge Theatre)

beat the devilSo, here we are again, but with a piece of theatre before a piece of theatre – a specific entry time (ignored in practice), some kind of thermal imaging camera to detect The Plague, an auditorium all but stripped of chairs, a stage with a chair and a desk and little else…

And, this is high risk in other ways or shouldn’t work. Hare has written about Covid-19, his symptoms, his recovery, chiefly characterised by everything tasting like sewage. It is far from the first time that Hare has drawn on recent politics, for example, the monologue Via Dolorosa (1998), which wrote and performed. And his politics have openly been of the left of centre kind. At the heart of this play – alongside the recounting of symptoms – is an account of the Conservative government’s handling of the pandemic.

I confess – having only the vaguest idea what the play was about – that it took a while to twig that the speaker, Ralph Fiennes, was Hare. His character is a writer, at least for screen, and knows the writer Howard Brenton, and wrote Licking Hitler, as which point the penny dropped. Fiennes, of course, shaves fifteen or so years off Hare’s age, but he could well be a spry seventysomething.

I last saw Fiennes in Antony and Cleopatra, one of the lockdown plays, and was less than whelmed, but he has a long pedigree in theatre, as well as blockbusters such as Strange Days and James Bond and something to do with Potter. He’s being trailed in The King’s Man, which looks fun (and I confess I missed the films to which it prequels).

The thrust stage version of the Bridge can hold a monologue – see Laura Linney and Maggie Smith  – so I wasn’t worried if Fiennes could fill the space. If anything, I think Smith’s literally moving performance should have made them trust the space more. He fidgets a little, he moves around a little too much and, and in Number, the interscene music is a little annoying.

But this is to carp – Fiennes as Hare makes us care, makes us pay attention, makes us laugh even, no mean seat in a 250-capacity venue designed for a thousand or more, with plenty of empty seats. Even the realisation that he must get better, doesn’t seem to stand in the way.

Hare takes aim at the dishonesty – of Johnson and his ministers – and makes the valuable point that we are owed the truth. Not the lying about PPE or testing results, but the admitting that mistakes were made. That the time between the first reports and a stupidly late lockdown was wasted.

One name is absent – one person whose economy with the truth still seems not yet to have played out entirely. Is this a deliberate avoidance? I wonder if the acid would cut too deep. Or the point is the betrayal by those elected to serve.

But being moved to anger and laughter and even to tears in a live event is something I’ve missed – indeed Fiennes as Hare talks of his own emotional rollercoaster. Fiennes is also able to slide into a couple of impressions of notable politicians, holding us rapt for fifty minutes.

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