The History of the Devil (Polymorphic Productions) – theatre review

Contemporary horror/fantasy author Clive Barker’s The History of the Devil focuses on the greatest trial in history. A deprived and lovelorn Satan is tired of living in hell and wants to go back to Heaven, but first he must undergo a trial for his time on Earth. Ambitious lawyers for the prosecution Tiana Varcoe (Lisa Hickey) and Jane Beck (Tiana Varcoe), have researched his life and times, and determined him to be just a law-undo-himself thug. Whereas they will argue that the Devil’s presence on Earth has been disastrous in its effect, the defence counters that the Devil is, in fact, mankind’s greatest scapegoat and the ensuing archetypal battle between good and evil provokes audience consideration of core concepts of culpability and the like.

So much of the show’s success comes from its unpredictable titular character’s presentation and from his rebellious rock-star entrance, Connor Scoble draws our eyes to his plight. More beguiling than depraved, menacing or maniacal, he is somewhat civil as he glides about the place with bare feet and dark polished nails, looking out over his eyeliner like a Tim Minchin-esque elfin pixie without the crowning mane (or demon horns). Indeed, Scoble’s Devil is not only charismatic, but even likeable at times, including through his measured ‘pound of flesh’ type short monologue opening statement about his innocence and desperate cries about wanting to be liked, which paint our perspective with unexpected pathos and fragility.

Alexis Beebe is also entertaining as tough Judge Popper (Alexis Beebe), determined to treat the trial like an ordinary court of law because justice is justice, giving us a lot of the show’s comic moments through both her nuanced dialogue delivery and physical mannerisms, especially in well-timed and precisely-toned interactions with simple court clerk Milo Milo (Zara Chandler). And Hickey does what she always does so well, memorably enlivening a highly animated Duke of York with exaggerated facial expressions and movement.

The play is almost three hours long (including interval), and it is burdened by this, especially when it takes a little while for the trial proper to begin. Its move through space and time starts with terrified Sam Kyle (Thomas Eastwood) being taken to Africa, having being chosen from every appeal lawyer in the world to be the devil’s advocate, whether he likes it or not. From here, however, James Kable’s direction keep things moving through what is a deceptively physical show.

Violence is simulated without actual appearance of the associated props and there is a lot of perfectly timed stylised movement, particularly by Varcoe, when being thrown about under the Devil’s control. Staging is simple, however, with aid from scant costume additions and changes, performers assume other roles as the dead are called as witness who lived centuries apart. And Nathaniel Knight’s lighting design transitions us easily in and out of their cooled testimonies in comparison to the heat of the trial’s setting. Isolated lighting at times on performers themselves also adds interest and elevates the production’s quality. The soundscape of Ewan Robertson’s design, however, emphasises early script mentions of the heat of the tiral’s Kenya location above and beyond what is needed for establishment, with the constant sounds of swarming flies not only becoming a distraction but sometimes competing with the on-stage action to make some of the show’s early dialogue difficult to decipher.

The History of the Devil is an adventurous work. Its warnings include of offensive language, morbid humour and blasphemy, mature and controversial themes and references and depictions of sex, sexual assault and violence. And its Jesus section alone, in which the Messiah’s imagined, expletive-filled diary is read as evidence, means that this is not a show for everyone. Its basic premise is not only interesting in and of itself, but is elevated by Barker’s sophisticated writing in creation of a script that is full of wry humour and clever, memorable lines … as sure as god made apples. Polymorphic Productions realisation of this, is, however, laboured by its length and could be elevated a little in places through increased attention to detail in costuming. Even so, this doesn’t detract from its thought-provoking resonance to its audience of jury members, not in relation to religion so much as ethics and humanity’s greatest failings.

The History of the Devil is at Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre, Brisbane until 16 December 2023

Meredith Walker
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane

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