Clive Barker’s “THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL” (Stage Review)
Written before he explored his own vision of hell’s god, Leviathan, in THE HELLBOUND HEART, Clive Barker’s 1980 play THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL focuses on the underworld’s more traditional Judeo-Christian figurehead, Lucifer. Montreal’s Title 66 Productions, in conjunction in the Fantasia film festival, conjured up a new production of Barker’s work for three nights earlier this month, seeking to answer the question: Is there sympathy for Satan?
Here, The Great Light Bearer’s desire is his need to return to his Father in heaven—God Almighty, who banished him so many eons ago for rebellion. But who among us would want to spend our day in great mindless worship, to paraphrase Peter Cook in BEDAZZLED? Someone needed to rock the boat; someone needed to be the villain in the Greatest Story Ever Told, after all. This can also be seen as Barker’s variation on THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, in which the devil is put on trial—but not necessarily for his sins.
Flanking Lucifer (Lucas Chartier-Dessert) are two demons: Beliah (James Harrington), a two-faced clown, and Verrier (Delphine DiTecco) in black leather and a long-nosed mask. Verrier’s orders are simple enough: to recruit a lawyer—the devil’s advocate (Kyle Mcilhone), if you will—to make the case for Master Satan’s ascension. The prosecutors (Arielle Palik and Liana Montoro) are, of course, set on seeing him remain locked away in Hades, away from the light of heaven promised to all the good boys and girls of Earth.
As the play proceeds, a singular chorus member (Logan Williams) dressed as a clown (of sorts) helps narrate the comings and goings of each side’s story, which is acted out center stage. The central tale is Lucifer’s fall to Earth, wrapped in a shroud. Not knowing who he is, wingless and confused, he is accompanied by an innocent in the woods, whom he fucks and strangles with a length of yellow rope. The latter is a theme running throughout the set design, and the color itself a key point of visual punctuation in props and costume choices—though its meaning never becomes clear. Are the ropes a metaphor for the story of the devil and his place in our lives—that it’s a web that leads us to the truth, if any, that the history of the devil reveals? Yellow is the color of the day and the sun; perhaps gold would have been better, a more royal hue for a story about a kingdom on Earth (Satan’s) vs. the kingdom of heaven (God’s).
Many others are called to the stand (the cast, also including Lily MacLean, play multiple roles), from the aforementioned innocent who lost her life to Dante himself, who also pleads to go to God but is stuck in some sort of purgatory. We see Rome being allowed to burn just for the hell of it, the carnage backlit through sheeting with restrained use of silhouettes to depict the stabbings and beheadings (no blood or Grand Guignol here). Two sisters chase the devil’s soon-to-be architect from their dwelling through poison, and an old timekeeper bears wisdom that only the prosecution can unlock.
We even meet, during a witch trial, the devil’s human lover, who helped create the mythos filled with goat’s blood and incantations. The devil thanks her for invoking such legends and grants her a wish, to fly—only for it to fail and spoil. Everything spoils in his presence, in fact, but is it his will or is he merely an unwitting catalyst? Is he merely a trickster like Loki, with clean hands that simply offer humans the chance to choose want they truly want to be—vile things made of skin that deceive and destroy? And if so, can this be the devil’s fault? When he mets the Great Nazarene and helps him figure the best way to die—to be beaten, to be hung on a cross like an everyday man—he does not lift a finger. Like Manson, he is a talker, an infernal instigator. It is the flock that waits for blood.
A Barker theatrical piece about the devil himself certainly promises an evening of transgressive eroticism, of merciless violence, of visionary spectacle. Unfortunately, the minimalist presentation here (partially intrinsic to the material, but much of it director Jeremy Michael Segal and set designer Williams’ doing) delivers on none of this promise. Granted, this is an early work of Barker’s, but it makes the three hours an endurance test. The cases are pled on a minimal set decorated with the aforementioned ropes, spray-painted mannequins and boxes for the costume changes. Limited resources are no excuse for a lack of visual variety; if a production is going to claim such an investment of time and focus from its audience, it should offer visual stimulation beyond a group of actors in leather commedia dell’arte masks flailing around a sparsely furnished set.
The language of Barker’s play is not especially captivating, nor his depiction of a beautiful Prince of Darkness novel. Hamlet reminds us that “the Devil hath power/To assume a pleasing shape,” and we have Gustave Doré’s etchings for John Milton’s PARADISE LOST of a rock-star Lucifer with black leather bat wings to remind us of even classical images where he is not a goatish bogeyman. In the diabolical lead, Chartier-Dessert offers a charismatic and understated performance, and the same is true of Mcilhone as Lucfer’s lawyer. The rest of the cast, alas, demonstrates less subtlety, and prove not as compelling, resorting to melodramatic stompings around the bare stage. I was seduced by neither the characters nor their rhetoric. Nor is it funny enough; as an Englishman, Barker surely had exposure to the work of Peter Barnes (THE RULING CLASS, RED NOSES), whose sociopolitical satire was always carved with knives into gallows-planks. THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL amuses at times, but it is not up to the rich, savage opportunity offered by its premise.
It must be noted, though, that for all its flaws, this staging marked a rare opportunity to see one of Barker’s plays performed live (thus my slightly generous grade below). Any company that takes on the task of mounting such a production in the first place is offering horror and Barker fans something they won’t likely come across again. And the play’s ending does grant a thought-provoking payoff: If we truly can still believe in these age-old Judeo-Christian stories, Barker asks, where indeed is the Watchmaker, and must He forever only be tried in absentia?