It’s always a delight when a show billed as a comedy is actually rip-roaringly hilarious when you sit through it, and this Mercurius production of The Devil Is An Ass had a cultured audience at The Rose Playhouse chortling heartily. Ben Jonson’s original script has had a neat trim by director Jenny Eastop (the character of Lady Eitherside being the most conspicuous by her absence in this production). What’s left is a flowing and highly entertaining show, driven with plenty of energy and vivacity by a strong cast, who are clearly enjoying themselves bringing the text to life.
I suppose many people who chose to read a synopsis before coming to this play, having not seen it before, would find the plot quite ludicrous. But the satire and wit come through brilliantly in a well-acted production such as this. Satan is prominent both to begin with and at the end, but – and this is what makes The Devil Is An Ass stand apart from other plays from the early seventeenth century – while the prince of the underworld is cunning and clever, his schemes are no match for the plotting and scheming of humans. Pug (a hugely likeable Lewis Chandler), a devil sent upwards to earth to, um, raise hell (I know, I know, bear with me), notes in an aside to the audience as some of the other characters discuss university, that “Hell is a grammar school [compared] to this [earth]”.
While many productions utilise the space they are given to work with sometimes remarkable skill, this one goes all out, using some of the vast area that forms the site of the Rose’s archaeological work. It is from some distance that Chandler must project from ‘Hell’, and he does so with textbook execution.
The scene changes see the cast remain in character even while furniture, props and curtains are being moved around, put up or torn down, and allow for seamless transition after seamless transition. And yet the show is never cluttered with too much set. Much of it – no, all of it – is kept simple – though the costumes are commensurate with the attire of the era – allowing the dialogue to shine fully. It’s a very tight production, and a lot pacier than I would have thought a play written in 1616 would be – in a good way.
There are particularly engaging performances from Charlie Ryall as Ingine and Michael Watson-Gray as Fitzdottrell, the latter being very animated, often combining dialogue and physical movement to give a sometimes mesmerizing, and always energetic, display more than befitting his larger-than-life character. I could go on for some time about who does what to whom, but suffice to say it never gets so confusing that the play is in danger of losing its sheer enjoyment.
It isn’t often that I come out of a theatre with more energy than I went in. It isn’t often that a play from some generations ago is easy to follow despite being a faithful rendering – that is, not a radical reinterpretation. It isn’t often that my thoughts stayed solely on what was happening on stage from beginning to end. This is a determined and successful attempt at making a 399-year-old play interesting and humorous to a modern audience, and I have no hesitation in recommending it for your viewing pleasure. I may even pop back to it myself, if I can squeeze a second viewing in.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Devil Is An Ass
Directed by Jenny Eastop
Man meets the Devil with hilarious results – a rollicking comedy perfect for dark November nights at the 16th Century Rose Playhouse.
Young devil Pug visits earth to corrupt mankind but finds himself desperately out of his depth in the moral cesspool of London life. He’s caught in the middle of a frantic whirl of deceit, corruption and trickery as he finds he is no match for mankind’s wildly inventive devilishness. Can Pug make it back to the safety of Hell ? Written in 1616 when Hell was an ever present reality this fast paced comedy raises the question ‘does man or the devil have the upper hand?’
Cast: Lewis Chandler, Monty d’Inverno, Beth Eyre, Benjamin Garrison, Stephen Good, Nicholas Oliver, Charlie Ryall and Michael Watson Gray.
The Rose Playhouse
56 Park Street
London, SE1 9AR