by John Whiting, from a book by Aldous Huxley / 2017, Embassy Theatre, Central / Adapted and directed by Ben Naylor and Anna Healey / Set design by Max Dorey / Costume design by Manuela Harding / Lighting by Joshua Gadsby / Sound by Dan Balfour / Stage violence by Bethan Clark / Voice work by Morwenna Rowe
The Devils, the true story of a witch hunt in early 17th-century France, is one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever made. With its themes of mass hysteria, toxic masculinity, inhuman(e) authority, serial abuse, dogged vengeance, and gossip elevated to doctrine, it seemed in 2017 the most appropriate dramatic response to the new Trumpian nightmare we were inhabiting. It’s horrifyingly violent, sexually disturbing, morally nihilistic; it focuses on fear, loathing and pain. As much as anything I’ve made in recent years – including Othello – The Devils plumbs the depths of human depravity in dramatic form.
It’s also a vast and highly technical beast. Anna Healey and I adapted John Whiting’s 1961 3-act monster into an hour and three-quarters of relentless, unremitting horror. At each moment, we sought to escalate, nauseate, repel and shock; to push each choice to its logical conclusion and beyond, into the realms of nightmare.
We did this with the assistance of an enormously talented creative team. Dan Balfour’s sound – which of course can’t be reproduced here – used unorthodox speaker placement, violent pitch shifts, extreme bass notes, distant echoes of haunting chant and repetitive siren-like drones to unsettle and disorient the audience, while highly complex work with head mics gave demonic or spectral voices to the actors.
We heightened these effects with radical and frequent reconfiguration of the audience’s perception of their relationship to the space and to the action; with shockingly swift and extreme cuts between scenes; and, at the height of the scene of pandemonium which forms the centrepiece of the horror, with planted audience members experiencing hysteric possession. Anna’s extraordinary movement work pushed an extremely talented company to their limits, with the aim of doing the same to the audience. The overall experience of the production was designed to recall, cumulatively, the effect of looking piecemeal at one of the great Bosch hellscapes from The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Haywain.
I hope these images show that, like Bosch, we also found beauty in the horror. Manuela Harding’s astonishing and bold costumes plunged us into a world which recalled both the contemporary police state and the theocratic early 17th-century, when the events of the play took place. Josh Gadsby’s exquisite lighting illuminated hellish visions like flashes of lightning.
It’s fair to say that not everybody who saw this production will have enjoyed it; it wasn’t designed to be enjoyed. Fully expecting people to want to leave, we built into the dramaturgy acknowledgements of the strong natural urge to both avert our eyes from horror and to commit ourselves to it vertiginously. But nobody did leave; audiences were riveted. Some, perhaps, might wish they had followed their impulse to extricate themselves: we’ve since been accused, more than once, of disturbing people’s sleep.
Trailer for the show, made by the brilliant Peter James of Blind Crow Films:
An interview I gave during rehearsals about the work is here.
Photography by Patrick Baldwin