Beat the Devil marks the return of live indoor theatre in the starriest of ways: a “Covid monologue” written by David Hare and performed by Ralph Fiennes. The stage is almost bare, which is a welcome relief – after almost six months, we do not need any visual distraction from the glory of a flesh-and-blood performance, albeit in an auditorium with a radically reduced capacity (from 900 to 250) and a Covid-secure armoury of thermal imaging and social-distancing guidelines.
Since theatres went dark, the Covid monologue has become a staple of rapid-response online productions. This 50-minute play, too, turns recently lived reality into drama, using Hare’s own harrowing experience of the illness as its narrative framework. The playwright contracted coronavirus at the start of lockdown, and this is a dissection of its debilitating effects as well as the politics around the illness.
Deftly directed by Nicholas Hytner, Fiennes emerges on stage looking like a middle-class everyman and speaks in diary dates, taking us through the chronology of Hare’s illness and key government decisions around Covid. The personal segues into the political and slightly overshadows the tender, first-person story. “I don’t have survivor’s guilt. I have survivor’s rage,” says Fiennes, and this play is a spirited expression of that righteous anger.
He speaks of the government’s slowness in announcing lockdown, the U-turn in contact tracing, the failure to provide sufficient PPE in hospitals, the plight of care homes, and much more, all of which amounts to political incompetence, hypocrisy and fiasco more heinous, he says, than the Suez crisis and the Iraq war.
There are dates, statistics and medical science, all powerfully delivered by Fiennes, who magically animates the stage, though he barely moves on it. The monologue has the urgency and passion of recently lived experience but also echoes of the 10 o’clock news at times, with familiar summaries of information and arguments. An initial poetry in the language is lost to a flatter, more muscular polemic when Fiennes launches full-throttle into political diatribe. It is the script’s comic ire that provides the high notes.
In the best moments, there are sparks of sharp, fierce outrage with Michael Spicer-style putdowns of individual cabinet ministers. There is an acerbic aside on Boris Johnson’s leadership that draws parallels between the prime minister’s return to office after contracting Covid-19 and his own recovery: “I know to take it easy. I know not to go back to running the country.” There are other barbed lines that zing: just as his illness enters its delirious or “mad phase”, so, too, the government enters its own state of madness.
Some trenchant points are made on class and race. The disease is “not the sort of thing the middle classes are supposed to get”, but, after Johnson contracts it, the Conservatives stop downplaying it because “it’s no longer a disease for losers. It’s a disease for men, particularly blond, white men.”
The personal tale is given comic treatment, too – his wife, Nicole, doesn’t understand social distancing when she climbs on top of him in bed to keep him warm – but is more often delivered in short, pungent lines. “Am I dying?” Fiennes says, but doesn’t linger on the thought, and remembers a diary entry on the 10th day of illness that read: “Total despair.”
This understated story of suffering becomes the quiet heart of the play, despite the louder passion of its politics. Hare’s illness brings terrors but it is also transformative. “I’m so glad to be alive,” he says, and we glimpse a man – though not always enough of him – who has gone through delirium and despair and come out the other side empathetic, grateful, changed.