Beat the Devil

David Hare
Sky Arts

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Ralph Fiennes Credit: Manuel Harlan

In many ways, Beat the Devil is an archetypal David Hare work. First seen on stage at the Bridge Theatre last year, the solo performance piece written and directed by the theatrical knight is a visceral response to COVID-19 written during and immediately after his recovery from the virus.

Rather than playing himself, Sir David allows a very sensitive Ralph Fiennes to deliver a very passable impression in a mock-up of the playwright’s studio, which is almost certainly not a mock-up but the real thing.

This writer has frequently sought to replicate real life on stage, generally on a much bigger scale. At the same time, his primary target has frequently been the foibles of inadequate governments.

As such, even without his own affliction, what he clearly regards as Boris Johnson’s hapless and nonsensical behaviour was a heaven-sent opportunity for bitter satire.

The illness also created an opportunity for instant symbolism, as David Hare was knocked for six, everything tasting of sewage at a time when the country was metaphorically knocked for six and everything tasted of sewage.

The two strands of a 50-minute monologue complement each other as well as telling their own separate stories.

The tale of a fit man laid low by a previously unknown disease about which doctors understood very little more than the victim is alarming but less alarming than might have been the case, given that he has written this play and therefore the outcome, which could have been tragic, has a happy ending.

The same cannot be said for the fates of so many citizens in this country and around the world.

Repeatedly, Sir David rails against what he might, were it not unparliamentary language, refer to as Johnson’s lies, allowing Donald Trump to share in the opprobrium.

Other UK cabinet members also receive short shrift for their callous attitudes and willingness to defend the indefensible while so many of their constituents were literally dying.

This is a short, very direct play that gets close to agitprop in its attempts to eviscerate the government at the same time as showing how a deadly illness affected one of its millions of victims.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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