I'll Be the Devil

Leo Butler
Royal Shakespeare Company
Tricycle Theatre
(2008)

Despite some excellent acting and designer Lizzie Clachan's deliberately underlit visual feast, which is reminiscent of a series of great artistic tableaux, it is hard to commend this brutal exploration of inhumanity.

When the RSC commissioned Leo Butler to write a play and they agreed upon a drama about British soldiers in Ireland long ago, the likelihood is that they had in mind something like Brian Friel's Translations. That play featured the idea of an occupied country where there is at least a semblance of civilised intercourse between soldiers and locals. What they actually got is a harsh condemnation of Imperial egocentricity.

Compared to the Limerick of 1762 portrayed in I'll be the Devil, Abu Ghraib is a sun kissed holiday camp. In Leo Butler's portrayal, the redcoats are not of the Butlin's variety but fully fledged torturers making life hell for the locals in the name of the English king. Worse, these supposedly civilised and educated warriors get their kicks from the kind of degradation that seems the result of animal rather than human instincts.

The central figures are an unconventional family. The father, Lieutenant Coyle, is a redheaded redcoat played by Eoin McCarthy who struggles to balance marriage to a rich but unattractive Lady with the earthy delights of his dead brother's widow (Dearbhle Crotty as Maryanne) and their two illegitimate children.

Despite his denials in the mess, Coyle has lived with and supported this second family throughout the two decades of British occupation. Very little is clear in this country, as all of the British are Irish and were born Catholic to boot, though they no longer admit it. Inevitably, converts are the worst hypocrites and spend all their time attacking those who have not yet seen the light and literally pissing on the missal. What they do with a crucifix is even worse.

There are scenes where the simpleton's son Dermot, a brave performance from Tom Burke, is treated worse than an unloved puppy after Christmas and then his father is brutally beaten by his so-called comrades.

Finally, although it is not entirely certain, his daughter, also none too strong on the mental front, is raped by the Colonel under her mother's eyes and killed, thus symbolising the fate of her benighted and stormy country over the ensuing centuries.

In opening and closing scenes, Dermot, tended by his young sister Ellen (Samantha Young), is viewed on a scaffold or being crucified. Either way, the symbolic madman who has already plucked out his own eyes is dying for a religion that he is too simple even to understand.

If this play has any purpose, it is in reminding the true blue British that when they condemn the behaviour of foreigners around war zones, their own history is hardly squeaky clean. This is a worthwhile message, but it is hardly the first time that it has been heard on a British stage and too much of the violence on this occasion appears gratuitous.

Playing until 8th March

Philip Fisher