Enthusiastic little devil Pug wants a crack at antagonizing mortals, but big man Satan isn’t sure he’s ready. After some discussion, Pug eventually gets his way and finds himself in London, where he is encouraged to bother greedy Fabian Fitzdottrell, an odd little man obsessed with using the dark arts to get rich. Taking up a position as his servant, Pug witnesses all sorts of bad behaviour and scheming from Fitzdottrell and the various con men after his money. Ben Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass is less about the devil and more about devilment, and Mercurius bring this farcical, Jacobean world to life with a snappy edit, good energy and some excellent performances in original dress.
At just over an hour, the edited script becomes focused on plot points rather than character development, but it works well for this story consisting of constant attempts at trickery that go wrong. Short, energetic scenes keep the action ticking along nicely in The Rose’s intimate staging area; only two moments are staged at the back of the archaeological site across the pool of water preserving the theatre’s remains. It’s a shame to rarely this part of such a unique venue, particularly as it would have expedited some of the longer transitions. Director Jenny Eastop’s use of fabric drapes and a few wooden chairs to create various locations is lovely though, particularly when arranged to make windows across a courtyard from which handsome Wittipol (Monty D’Inverno) attempts to woo Fitzdottrell’s much abused wife (Beth Eyre). Handy signs also add clarity and sumptuousness to a story driven by money and deception.
The men lead in the performances, with Michael Watson-Gray as the hapless Fitzdottrell who is unable to decline Meercraft’s (Benjamin Garrison) blatant exploitation of his greediness. Watson-Gray’s Fitzdottrell is also wonderfully abhorrent in the way he treats his wife and the men that he, in turn, also tries to con. Garrison gives a performance nearly identical to the style of Jack Whitehall, but this professional debut of a recent graduate shows confidence, presence and style. D’Inverno is delightful disguised as a Spanish lady in his attempts to get some alone time with Mistress Fitzdottrell, and Nicholas Oliver as Ambler is also very good. Some of the other performances lack confidence and seem unsure about handling the text, but do not detract from the others much.
Rather than forcing this play into an unrelated time period, Eastop wisely focuses on the text-based comedy and leaves the setting in its original time and place. As Pug becomes more and more baffled by the antics of these mere mortals and misses the roaring fires of home, his frustration eventually explodes after a run in with a lady of fashion, of which there is no greater hell. With a focus on money as much as the dark arts, there is some contemporary relevance, but it is very much a relic of its time. There are definitely some great choices in Mercurius’ funny production of Jonson’s rarely staged play that makes it worth seeing in this very special venue.
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