Sympathy for the Devil

THEATRE The Devil Is an Ass Swan, Stratford
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Surmounting the Swan stage at The Devil Is an Ass is the dinky cityscape of Jacobean London, glitter-sprinkled with prosperity. In the foreground, though, you notice that the city is sliding inexorably over the edge of some infernal pit, as though it had been "twinned" with Sodom or Gomorrah. Ben Jonson's play goes one step further in its satiric condemnation. London is not just on the road to hell; rather, it is presented as a place that could teach hell more than a trick or two, as Pug (John Dougall) a devil allowed a one-day visit to the capital, quickly discovers.

Assuming the body of a recently hanged Newgate cutpurse, he enters the service of Fitzdottrel (excellent David Troughton), a credulous Norfolk squire and amateur demonologist. The nave, sweet-faced Pug is thus plunged into a teeming world of duplicitous projectors with their fantastical get-rich-quick schemes and of raddled female lust posing as exquisite social refinement. Learning that Pug is called Devil, the rotten-toothed Lady Eitherside (Siobhan Fogarty) snobbishly insists that the name "came in with the Conqueror" and should be pronounced "De-vile". "There is no hell / To a lady of fashion," wails Pug, who, beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted and imprisoned, pines for the fires of hell.

The Devil Is an Ass is an odd mix of recyclings from earlier Jonson plays and emotional notes new to his work. Like Corvino in Volpone, Fitzdottrell is an insanely jealous husband who is none the less prepared to use his holed-up wife as a bargaining chip in a business deal. In return for a natty cloak that he can swan around in at the Playhouse, fashion-conscious Fitzdottrel allows the gallant Wittipol (Douglas Henshall) 15 minutes' monitored conversation with his wife. A ludicrous set-up, maybe, but there's real fervour in Wittipol's appeal to her not to waste her youth and seize the chance, through him, of escape: "You grow old, while I tell you this."

Matthew Warchus's production skilfully negotiates the difficulty of combining high energy farce with a romantic plot that moves not towards the release of adultery but to high-minded renunciation and to re-entering the prison of marriage on slightly better terms. Henshall is sublimely funny in the scene where, posing as a hugely tall, eyelid-batting Spanish lady, he's hired by Fitzdottrel to teach the ladies modish skills. In an accent that combines prim Morningside and lisping snake-like Hispanic S's, he reels off great litanies of up-market cosmetics ("Water of gourdes, the white beans..."). But the actor is equally effective in those prolonged moments of silent inner wrestling when Wittipol has to come to terms with the fact that, in her current plight, Mistress Fitzdottrel (Joanna Roth) needs a friend not a lover.

There are some fine performances here, among them that of John Nettles who is wreathed in insincere smiles and driven by desperate improvisatory energy as the projector Merecraft. If the production fails to convince you that this is one of Jonson's great plays, it's highly diverting none the less and whets your appetite for Warchus's forthcoming National Theatre Volpone, an outright masterpiece.

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