I attended the NTW premiere of The Devil Inside Him at the New Theatre in Cardiff. The queues that overflowed onto the street, the buzzing, full house atmosphere, the sense of anticipation and support, mirroring my own state of mind. Advertising had been clever and intense, promising a look into a modern classic author’s first play, just recovered from dusty oblivion; John Osborne’s first ever staged play.
At first, realising that the Director – Elen Bowman – had chosen to stage this newly recovered literary treasure in its original setting, I felt slightly cheated. There is no doubt that the modern promotional advertising was misleading. Having said that, I understood the thinking behind the choice, to play a lost piece as if it were the very first performance, with a degree of honesty to the original piece, thus being uncontaminated by today’s knowledge and experience.
Indeed, the production takes this honesty to the letter: Even the orthodox stage directions of ‘Curtain’ to mark the end of scenes have been kept, when the play would have benefit from if they had been eliminated altogether, as they had the effect of breaking the emotional journey. The actors defended the play, professionally and skilfully despite the weighting down from old theatrical conventions, replaying it as if staged for audiences of the 50s. Only a hint of a more personal interpretation is firstly exposed by the attention given to what might lay outside the household, vividly suggested through realistic lighting and sound design, and then, at the last minute, by the exposure of the upper section of the set. I would have welcomed this much earlier in the performance, as it added an interesting layer allowing a modern imagination to be engaged.
Huw, the main character in The Devil inside Him, is a young man existing in a state of separation from the world, but nonetheless remaining physically in it. This separation helps Huw to survive in a world that is disinterested in him, a world that in his own words “makes ugliness out of the lovely things”. In his breakdown, we are put face to face with the futility of the world; the result being devastating if a physical understanding is given. But this is Post-War theatre, there was a willingness to reassert the importance of human individuality and freedom, therefore a spiritual interpretation should be considered, one that transforms the violence of its language and its outcome into a spiritually and transformative experience. That is, at least, how Huw feels it. Once he understands the power of his isolated individuality, he understands he can choose to act in a cruel or good fashion without actually being either. He finds his freedom when his own values come into play and he takes responsibility for his choices, despite the cost of being true to himself: “Before I could live but I didn’t understand. I understand now, but I can’t live”.
There are many ways to read a play, the religious and philosophical being two of the options available. A detailed reading of The Devil Inside Him exposes Osborne’s familiarity with existentialist ideas, preoccupied with the cost of being true to oneself in an indifferent world. But was the young Osborne aware too of William James’s thoughts regarding the relationship between Psychology, Philosophy and Religion? I can’t but wonder about the coincidence of re-staging this play at the same time that Britain is celebrating the centenary of W. James, famous for his lectures and publishing of the ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’, arguing that the manufacture of words by theologians about particular doctrines does not help to meet true human needs.
Anne Bogart wrote that “a great play asks big questions that endure through time”. Osborne’s play, recreating the world of a young man belonging to the British post-war generation, reveals his knowledge of the existentialism that became a significant philosophical and cultural movement at the time and argues institutionalised religion vs. personal religion while examining the response of a naturally inquisitive, non-conformist and angry 18 years old youth. But is it a question for the philosophical and cultural movements and the different religious experience in Britain today? E. Bowman believes this 60 years old play was written before its time, and has contemporary relevance: “it highlights how society still creates ‘devils’ who are ultimately seeking ways and means to express their injustice”.
I believe these are the questions that most interestingly modernises the reading of the play and I look forward to future modern interpretations of Osborne’s story. After all, this is a version the author chose to ignore...
Cardiff 16th May 2010
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