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I’ll Be The Devil

First Published 17 April 2008, Last Updated 17 April 2008

Originally performed as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival, Leo Butler’s I’ll Be The Devil received its first full staging at the Tricycle last night. A wincing Tom Bowtell couldn’t look away, even when he wanted to.

Commissioned to write ‘a response to The Tempest’, Butler has produced a brutal drama which very much stands alone as a production. Set in Limerick in 1762, with the Catholic population living under the rule of William III’s Protestant army, I’ll Be The Devil tells the story of a family torn apart by sectarian tensions and the cruelty of occupying forces. The play charts the tragic journey of Maryann (Derbhle Crotty), a Catholic villager scraping a living with her eccentric children Ellen (Samantha Young) and Dermot (Tom Burke), and Lt Coyle (Eoin McCarthy), the father of her children who, despite his Catholic roots, now serves as a soldier for the English. Coyle is summoned to fight with the army in Europe, forcing him to suppress his paternal instincts and disown the family whose religion could disgrace him.

The play has a complex relationship with The Tempest: while bludgeoningly obvious allegories are thankfully avoided, resonances with Shakespeare’s last play are delicately woven into every scene. The apocalyptic thunderstorm which rages throughout provides a constant link to the Tempest and recaptures its sense of a world sliding inexorably towards chaos. The premise of ignorant, arrogant colonising forces (in this case the English) invading an ancient, supernaturally-infused island (in this case Ireland) also strongly recalls The Tempest, as does the Caliban-esque Dermot, with his self-pitying philosophy and tall tales of witches. Intriguingly, scenes of men being buffeted by squalls in the wilderness and of eyes being gouged also remind the audience of King Lear – another play where the natural order of things is being twisted into something awful.

The eye-gouging scene is just one example of the unabashedly visceral violence at the heart of the production. The prominent warnings that the play “contains violence, strong language and explicit scenes of an adult nature” are utterly justified and the central scene, where Coyle is tortured and defiled by his fellow soldiers elicited gasps even from the hardened members of the press corps.

With the possible exception of that eye-gouging scene, the violence never seems gratuitous as Butler brilliantly portrays the horrific potential of the pack mentality and the extent to which occupying forces view native peoples as sub-human. Interestingly, however, the most disturbing scenes are those which follow the violence, where Maryann and Doyle capitulate utterly to the English, and calmly submit themselves to the indignities meted out by the elegantly monstrous Colonel Fleming (John McEnery).

While it isn’t always an entirely pleasurable experience, I’ll Be The Devil is a compelling piece of theatre. Leo Butler’s script is infused with mordant humour and sharp dialogue, and the cast are uniformly excellent. It is, however, unremittingly bleak: while the pessimistic heart of The Tempest is sugared with romance, there are no sweeteners here; as the dehumanised Maryann says as she kneels before her English conqueror: “redemption is a lie.”

I’ll Be The Devil plays at the Tricycle until 8 March 2008

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