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Theatre review: Beat The Devil

PICTURE: MANUEL HARLAN

REVIEW

Beat The Devil

Bridge Theatre, London ★★★★✩

‘I AM air hungry’ says Ralph Fiennes, cutting a wearily embittered figure in this new, landmark David Hare monologue — marking the West End’s first indoor production since the theatres closed in March.

Hare caught Covid-19 about a week before the government announced lockdown, and in this 50-minute piece doesn’t stint in relaying the reality-bending nightmare of his symptoms: the sweats, vomiting, diarrhoea, breathlessness, devastating exhaustion.

Never too ill to swap his sickbed for a hospital ward, he is one of the lucky ones: a third of those admitted to hospital died. Yet Hare’s early experience of the disease also sharpens his political fury. The PPE crisis, the weeks lost to not quarantining overseas visitors, the lives lost to the care homes scandal — Hare surveys it all with despairing incredulity, and Fiennes’s lived-in performance rams every dismal truth home. ‘Ramping it up’ is a ‘euphemism’ for finally getting round to the situation, he observes, witheringly. And to call the members of the cabinet ‘mediocre’ is an insult to mediocrity.

Only when Boris Johnson falls ill, suggests Hare, does the government seem to concede that middle-class white people can get it too — that Covid-19 is not only a disease of the weak, the poor, the ‘losers’.

This is not Hare’s most nuanced piece of work, but it scarcely matters in light of an affable and astringent performance from Fiennes (pictured) and given the context — the first flicker of life from an art form forced for months into alien dormancy.

Nicholas Hytner has nimbly beaten the devil in programming this, the first of several monologues at the Bridge. Welcome back!

bridgetheatre.co.uk