Gryphon Theatre
May 21-31 | Reviewed by Melody Nixon

THIS Phillip Mann production of John Whiting’s The Devils is a smoothly rendered piece, highly stylised while remaining clear and understandable. Whiting’s seventeenth century language has been simplified to a much more encompassing modern version, allowing viewers to focus on the action and plot of the play, rather than the script. The terse and poetic imagery of Mann’s direction and Keren Chiaroni’s set design combine effectively with the wit and ‘conceit’ of what is in essence a long and emotionally complex play, with an enormous cast and some tricky layers of deception. The fact that Mann, Meredith Dooley and cast manage to pull off a version of The Devils that is plausible, comprehensible and affecting, especially in the first two Acts, is a testament to their combined talent and abilities.

The opening of Act One is highly polished. Haunting and visceral props by Robert Hickey, moody lighting by Matthew Leather and Devon Heaphy and confident, excited acting by the scores of cast set a well-paced and clear-cut tone that endures throughout the show. The rationalist surgeon and his alchemist sidekick, played by Matt Todd and Thomas Rimmer, form an entertaining and endearing duo. Their well-established, comfortable rapport provides commentary for, and interpretation of, much of the play’s action; and a valuable thread of continuity throughout some of the play’s more confusing moments. Fluid and quick scene changes and well orchestrated action engage viewers from the beginning, and there is a sense of respect for the audience’s capacity to receive the play’s – intended and unintended – messages.

The Devils marks the first time I have seen the space of the Gryphon transformed to something like a Round, and the wide, high-roofed theatre lends well to it. Mann has choreographed actors’ movements to encompass the width and depth of the three-sided stage as well as the multiple perspectives of audience, to the effect that actors seem a great deal less stilted in their actions. Perhaps the best example of this careful choreography is in the plays’ outdoor scenes, where the stage fills with bustling townspeople, who move around the full space of the theatre and animatedly interact with one another in a way that does not seem rehearsed.

The two lead figures – both religious and theatrical – are the priest Father Grandier, played by Tom Rainbird, and possessed nun Sister Jeanne, played by Kate Blackhurst. These two equally conflicted characters play off against one another in violent contrast, alternating between purveyors of evil and good as the story progresses. Like most of the cast Blackhurst performs with utmost conviction, and never strays outside the bounds of her character, even when performing some fairly gruesome scenes of ‘possession.’

Despite the compelling build-up, the third and final Act of The Devils does become a little agonizing to watch. This partly for the way the script progresses and partly for the aggressive and bloody tone assumed by the set, costumes and acting. Yet the play is set in murderous medieval England, when wars of religion and concepts of the Devil – or devils – were almost as gruesome and the punishments sought for those believed to be doing ‘the devil’s work.’ Mann responds to this fear and hysteria in tones that are wrought and violent, though probably much subtler than those the playwright himself intended.

Overall The Devils is a compelling and impressively produced piece; a testament to what the enthusiasm and commitment of community theatre can achieve.