Beat the Devil review – righteous rage of David Hare's corona nightmare

Bridge theatre, London
In the return of live indoor theatre, Ralph Fiennes delivers the playwright’s fury at the government’s response to the virus – and his despair when he catches it himself

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.

• Beat the Devil is in repertoire in a season of 12 monologue plays at the Bridge theatre, London, until 31 October.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Straight Line Crazy review – Ralph Fiennes enthrals as the man who shaped New York
Fiennes heads an electrifying cast in David Hare’s dynamic portrait of Robert Moses, an aggressive yet visionary urban planner who refused to back down

Mark Lawson

24, Mar, 2022 @12:01 AM

Article image
David Hare to make his experience of Covid-19 subject of new play
Monologue starring Ralph Fiennes to be part of Bridge theatre’s reopening schedule

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

10, Aug, 2020 @1:21 PM

Article image
The week in theatre: Beat the Devil; Sleepless: A Musical Romance – review
David Hare’s explosive, first-hand coronavirus monologue hits every target

Susannah Clapp

06, Sep, 2020 @9:30 AM

Article image
Musicals are having an exceptional moment – but classic plays are vanishing from our stages | Michael Billington
There are invigorating versions of Guys and Dolls, Oklahoma! and Cabaret in London – and some enticing new dramas coming up – yet theatre risks being cut off from its past

Michael Billington

23, Mar, 2023 @5:23 PM

Article image
Two Ladies review – presidents’ wives turn to violence
Zoë Wanamaker and Zrinka Cvitešić attempt to seize power at a summit meeting in Nancy Harris’s provocative play

Michael Billington

25, Sep, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
Bach & Sons review – study of the man and his music hits a flat note
Simon Russell Beale stars in a visually impressive production of Nina Raine’s play that never quite gets off the ground

Arifa Akbar

29, Jun, 2021 @11:01 PM

Article image
Guys and Dolls review – Nicholas Hytner’s gamble pays off
This immersive production of the New York musical has a bold design, superb singing and chemistry between its stars

Arifa Akbar

15, Mar, 2023 @12:01 AM

Article image
Allelujah! review – Alan Bennett's hospital drama is full of quiet anger
Patients’ singalongs, Arlene Phillips’s choreography and Bennett’s stinging wit light up a state-of-the-nation play set on a geriatric ward

Michael Billington

18, Jul, 2018 @9:00 PM

Article image
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage review – a theatrical marvel
Nicholas Hytner brings a dazzling wizard’s touch to this adaptation of Philip Pullman’s fantasy tale

Arifa Akbar

08, Dec, 2021 @12:01 AM

Article image
Bridge theatre's Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr to open new venue in King's Cross
The 600-seat theatre, due to open in Facebook’s new offices in 2021, will be an adaptable auditorium in the mould of the Bridge

Chris Wiegand

08, May, 2019 @12:45 PM