How real are heaven and hell in your lives? When a Neapolitan bandit is hanged for his crimes, he soars into the bright lights of the Olivier, like a transfigured angel. His counterpart, a grumpy old hermit whose sin of pride has led him into temptation, dies in misery and doubt, plummeting down a mountainside into hell.
These fateful contradictions lie at the heart of Tirso de Molina's 17th century piece of theological grand guignol, a brutal, poetic slab of a Golden Age Spanish play that has been appropriated with relish by Frank McGuinness (using a literal translation by Simon Breden, or Bredon; the NT programme and Faber text are in disagreement) as an ironic commentary on the pitfalls of religious belief.
It makes for an awkward, demanding, sometimes bathetic night in the Olivier, but there is no question that this latest in the Travelex Tickets season is an overdue follow-up to the Gate Theatre's work in this part of the repertoire (Stephen Daldry directed this play there 20 years ago) now continuing with Laurence Boswell down at Bath.
It’s a reminder, too, of how the church was a central part of the theatre in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance - Molina was a monk with bad habits - and how the theatre’s increasing secularisation and satirical function drove a wedge between them.
After whipping himself into a pious frenzy on his crag, Sebastian Armesto’s appealing recluse, Paulo, is transported by the Devil (a shape-shifting Amanda Lawrence who flickers too briefly) to a scene of violence and sexual debauchery in a downtown pizzeria where “bad boy” Enrico rules the roost after defiling virgins, stealing chalices, burning children and killing old men.
This great speech, which makes Malcolm’s (fake) confession of whole-scale debauchery in Macbeth sound like a nursery rhyme, is delivered with enormous swagger by Bertie Carvel, returning to something like gangster normality after the disfiguring excesses of Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical.
Carvel leads a fit-looking ensemble in Bijan Sheibani’s production, with some stand-out cameos from Pierce Reid as a provocative pretty boy, Leanne Best and Lorna Brown as borderline abused women, Michael Grady-Hall as a romantic innocent and, best of all, Damon Albarn lookalike Rory Keenan (so good as “private” Gar in Philadelphia, Here I Come! at the Donmar recently) as Paulo’s Sancho Panza-ish sidekick, Pedrisco.
The play may prove a hard sell, but it’s the sort of thing the National should be doing, even though this production, on a gloomy old-fashioned mountain and pizza bar setting by Giles Cadle that is a rare disappointment for him, shows signs of faltering self-belief and loose ends after rough cuts in previews.