Leo Butler's play about 18th-century Ireland begins as it means to go on – indeed, even before it begins, things have got nasty and symbolic. Dermot, the text states, is in a pillory that resembles a cross. "Dermot's eyes have been gouged out."
As this story of a secretly Catholic officer in the British Army unfolds, men are stabbed, throttled, hanged upside down, and sodomised with a crucifix. And the local pigs don't come out of this well, either.
The parade of atrocities, however, does not terrify, nor does it claim our pity, as the violence is visited on puppets, not people. The officer's mistress is Irish Womanhood, blazing with contempt and fury. The redcoats are drunken swine, brutal in their employment and even more brutal off duty, for fun. Dermot, the son of the officer and his lover, carves up men and living pigs, but he is mad, usually shackled and chained.
The one innocent, Dermot's sister, should be a relief. Yet she's the hardest to take. Backward and blame-less, she performs such charades of Victorian sentimentality as trying to feed her apparently dead mother.
I'll Be the Devil is one of several works commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company that take their inspiration from Shakespeare's plays, in this case The Tempest. The stormy island setting is the same, and Dermot is the enslaved Caliban figure who longs for a good master. But, with the majesty and forgiveness of The Tempest replaced by squalor and rage, that play's influence seems no stronger than that of Animal Farm, which also conflated men and pigs.
Butler's view might be justified if his language engaged our intellects or our senses. Nearly all the dialogue, however, is short, harsh phrases full of coarse words, bar some poetic raving from Dermot.
Ramin Gray's production does boast an excellent cast with two standout performances, from the earthy, eerie Derbhle Crotty as the mistress and from John McEnery as the English colonel, whose understated diction is a welcome contrast to everyone else's ranting. But the colonel's sentiments are as stereotyped as one might expect from the rest of the play, and his behaviour as kinky and evil as one might fear. The contrast is painful between the work of this actor, always a paragon of integrity, and this superficial play.
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