This review was originally written for Everything Theatre
While Simon McBurney’s The Encounter delights audiences at the Barbican, another immersive show, The Devil Speaks True, attempts to do the same at Waterloo’s Vault Festival. Developed by Goat and Monkey, it uses audio, projection and performance to tell the story of Macbeth. It’s told from Banquo’s perspective and is also littered with extracts from conversations with ex-servicemen with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With headphones on, one is left in total darkness as this strange attempt at storytelling unfolds.
If all that sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Without the help of an information sheet handed out before the show begins, very little could be understood from the ensuing hour. The anticipation and apprehension engendered by the pre-show warning gradually dissipates into something approaching tedium, as vague links between Shakespeare’s play and the plight of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are tenuously explored.
There are moments when Oli Jones’ Banquo, kitted out in modern-day army uniform, is starkly illuminated on stage, visibly traumatised and shaking with fear. For the most part, though, one is left in the dark, both literally and metaphorically, listening to PTSD sufferers relate their experiences alongside passages from Macbeth performed in thick Scottish brogues. Occasionally footage of Middle-Eastern war zones is projected onto the plain white backdrop, but such devices are used few and far between.
It is difficult to criticize The Devil Speaks True as it undoubtedly comes from a compassionate place and is trying to explore an important issue. However, it must be said that it really does not succeed in grabbing the audience’s attention at all. So little actually happens. There is so little coherency or flow between the performances, the projections, the recordings and the Shakespeare, that an hour-long play begins to feel a lot longer, and not in a good way.
It could be said that Jones, the only live performer in the entire piece, displays some eye-catching physicality, and his obvious torment is uncomfortable to witness at times. One moment, when he slumps backwards, convulsing violently and foaming uncontrollably at the mouth, promises something visceral and thrilling, but it is gone as quickly as it comes. The snatches of Shakespeare are effective in working the imagination – especially as one lacks anything to focus on but the words – and the conversations about PTSD are revealing. To praise the show for this would be clutching at straws though.
PTSD is a serious psychological problem that indisputably does not receive the attention it deserves. However, it is dealt with much more provocatively in Ridiculusmus’ Give Me Your Love, which ran at Battersea Arts Centre last month. The Devil Speaks True is born of a similar desire to educate, and encourage discussion about PTSD, but it is far too disjointed and incomprehensible to have any lasting impact.
Immersive theatre can be a singularly powerful experience, as the rave reviews for The Encounterdemonstrate. Unfortunately this is not a particularly illuminating or innovative example of the medium. Festivals like Vault are by their very nature hit and miss. The Devil Speaks True is a well-intentioned but sadly uninspiring miss.