The Devil Inside
Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow;
touring UK and Canada
until April 18
Reviewed by Mark Brown
There is something powerfully timely about the premiere of The Devil Inside, the new opera by composer Stuart MacRae and author Louise Welsh. Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story The Bottle Imp (an allegorical warning about the evil of avarice), it opened just days after the release of Oxfam’s shocking report that the richest 62 people on the planet own more wealth than the poorest half of humanity.
Where better to re-set Stevenson’s story than in 21st-century Britain (officially the most unequal country in the European Union)? It is on a hike in British mountains, with the rain lashing down and darkness falling, that friends James and Richard take shelter in a grand house.
There they meet a strange elderly man who sells James a bottle containing an imp which grants its owner’s wishes. There is a catch, however.
The possessor of the bottle cannot simply live a life of luxury, then attempt to drive his Rolls Royce through the gates of Heaven. Unless the holder of the bottle sells it before his death, and for less money than he paid for it, his soul will be thrust into Hell for eternity.
Needless to say, the imp launches the two friends into the economic elite. In a chilling moment of honesty, which is typical of Welsh’s sharp, often witty libretto, James, looking down from the window of his plush office, exclaims that the people below are: “Busy little nothings / I could crush them with my thumb.”
To divulge more of the narrative would be to risk the justified wrath of the spoiler police. Suffice it to say that James and Richard are forced, in very different ways, to decide what matters most to them in life; no easy task with the hellish imp and its wish fulfilment a constant temptation.
Innumerable dramatists, from Marlowe and Goethe forward, have explored the almost infinite possibilities embedded within the Faust myth. It’s little wonder, then, that this operatic translation of Stevenson’s Faustian tale feels like a work that was waiting to be written.
Co-produced by Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales, the piece boasts a score that is redolent of the work of high modernist composers such as Janacek and Bartok. By turns dark, ecstatic and premonitory, its jagged discordances fit perfectly with the tale’s seeming lack of redemption.
The opera is performed beautifully throughout. Ben McAteer’s James (an appropriately rich baritone) and Nicholas Sharratt’s Richard (almost maniacal in his bewitchment) contrast beautifully.
Rachel Kelly plays James’s wife Catherine with tremendous emotion as she is dragged from blithe optimism into desperation. Steven Page gives affecting performances as two elderly men, one wealthy, the other a despairing vagrant, who are both in terror of their souls.
There is little terror, but considerable disappointment, in Samal Blak’s set designs, which look like the creations of a cash-strapped designer who has failed to find a coherent concept. Only when Kelly, sitting on a bed enveloped in darkness, sings Catherine’s song of hope for a love-filled life does the design achieve any real emotional impact.
It may feed the ears more than the eyes, but director Matthew Richardson’s production certainly has the capacity to touch one’s soul.
For tour details visit: thedevilinside.musictheatrewales.org.uk
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 31, 2016
© Mark Brown