During last yearís Complete Works season at Stratford-upon-Avon, the RSC invited Leo Butler and Roy Williams to write new plays in response to Shakespeare. The companyís season at the Tricycle shows the fruit of this experiment, starting with Butlerís Iíll Be the Devil, a barbaric epic of colonial confusion -- well, it certainly had me guessing -- set in Limerick in 1762 for which The Tempest is the template.
Why 1762? Why Limerick? Butler seizes on several salient historical factors: William IIIís redcoat regiments included Catholic Irishmen conscripted to fight overseas; it is possible that some of them found themselves stationed back in their homeland en route to the French campaign. Such a garrison might include a case of divided loyalty.
Butlerís Lieutenant Coyle (Eoin McCarthy), therefore, is faced with his former lover, the vengeful, witch-like Maryanne (Derbhle Crotty), a personification of Shakespeareís unseen Cycorax, mother of Caliban, and their gibbering offspring Ė Dermot(Tom Burke), a pig-smuggling will oíthe wisp and Ellen (Samantha Young), a repressed and subservient Miranda.
Hard to follow and sometimes hard to watch, Butlerís self-consciously blasphemous and uncompromising text isolates Coyle in the company of his fellow soldiers where he is subjected to taunts and abuse. So is Dermot. Ramin Grayís indulgent production fails to sort out the emphasis, or indeed any dramatic sequence, in these tavern scenes, where the action is buried in a Celtic welter of fiddle and bagpipe, the ranting of the platoon led by Gerard Murphyís corpulent, booming Sergeant and the scampering torso of a legless potboy (the remarkable David Toole, formerly of Graeae).
The idea behind the project is a worthy and overdue one: for heavenís sake letís get these playwrights off their council estates and into the exemplary historical and mythical landscapes of Brecht, Bond and Arden. But there is a formulaic desperation about this effort that needs the confidence of a large stage, a sterner attitude to text and language, and a clearer determination of targets to succeed. All the same, there are some startling later scenes involving Maryanneís bid to escape, having sold herself to the callously intervening ice-cool colonel of John McEnery.
Lizzie Clachanís design, backed by the constant howling of wind and bestial cries on [Fergus OíHare]ís soundtrack, conjures a primitive backwoods hovel and various other locations with too much clutter for a small stage. The bookended crucifixion of the blind Dermot (he tears out his own eyes, God only knows why) is muffled in the upstage gloaming, while the fate of Coyleís private cross and prayer book (one about his own person, the other in a stream of urine) is all too graphically conveyed in the pub melee.
- Michael Coveney