Before Look Back in Anger transformed British theatre and turned John Osborne into a legend, the playwright was a stage manager and actor on the provincial touring circuit. When he decided to turn his hand to writing, the result was a thriller, The Devil Inside Him, set in a boarding house in the Welsh Valleys.
Co-written with Osborne’s then-mentor (and lover) Stella Linden, the play was found in the British Library Archives in 2009 and performed to great acclaim by National Theatre Wales.
Now, the White Bear Theatre will give the play that Michael Billington calls an “extraordinary discovery” its London premiere, as part of its ongoing ‘Lost Classics’ policy. This follows what the Guardian described as the theatre’s “sensational revival” of another Osborne play, Personal Enemy, last year.
A week before opening night, I spoke with director Hannah Joss about directing early Osborne, ignoring autobiography and why the White Bear is the perfect venue for the play.
What’s The Devil Inside Him about?
It’s about a boy, Huw, who’s grown up being called soft in the head, finding himself and going on quite an intense journey. He gets pushed and pushed by those around him – and his thoughts turn to murder. But that’s as much as I’m saying! I don’t want ruin it for anyone.
What makes the play more than just a curio from Osborne’s back catalogue?
It’s a nuanced study of human nature; not just of Huw but the other characters as well. They are very much drawn in three dimensions. It also has that aspect of looking into the life of a family for a brief moment. It has what most interests me in theatre: a combination of the extreme and the mundane. It addresses a lot of fascinating topics, particularly the day-to-day life of Huw’s Welsh Methodist family. It shows the potential oppressiveness of Christianity, which we don’t really see in contemporary texts – the focus is more on Islam at the moment. So it’s interesting to bring that home.
Do you see connections between this play and Look Back in Anger?
You could compare Huw with Jimmy Porter. He’s a young man who finds it difficult to express himself. He explores avenues that aren’t necessarily fitting to his environment. He writes poetry and escapes to the nature of the hills as a place that man hasn’t touched. But I’m trying to step away from going too far down that route. I don’t want to deliberately pre-empt anything.
Autobiography is central in much of Osborne’s work. Have you treated this play in that way?
I’ve chosen not to. Constantly being aware of Osborne in the room with you can be useful, but it can also be creatively stultifying. Everyone knows about him and his struggles. And while it’s good to have that on the backburner, my approach has been about mining the text for the characters and their actions. If you get weighed down with the writer you risk stifling a company that’s come together to create something new.
Look Back in Anger is credited with ushering in a new era of theatre. But is Osborne’s work still relevant today?
I think so. It’s difficult because you have to think about your audience. Are they coming to him for the first time or as people who may have studied him or know his work well? But the subjects he tackles are universal. Everyone has felt repressed or stifled in some way, either by people close to them or by a bigger force outside the home. That’s the way into this play. You may never have been to Wales but you’ll understand the struggles. If a writer has done things properly – and Osborne has – they’ll always be relevant.
Is it possible to identify Stella Linden’s influence on The Devil Inside Him?
To be honest, I can’t say. When I was looking at the play before rehearsals I did mark moments where possibly Osborne and Linden were talking about their relationship and going back to the theme of repression. But again, it’s about looking at the text as the whole, rather than autobiographically. And there are no points where it’s definitively the work of another writer beside Osborne.
What would you say are the play’s main themes?
Huw is in the centre, with his family pushing down on him; and surrounding them is a small, tight-knit village, pushing down on everyone. The play’s biggest subject is religion. It throws up many questions about duty, what you should do as opposed to what you want to do. There’s a lot about impulses and the danger of leaving things unsaid. Huw’s clearly unwell but instead of addressing this and helping him, his family (and the village) have brushed it under the carpet.
How does your production differ from the National Theatre Wales revival of 2010?
Actually, as a director, I made a decision to keep away from that production. For me, it’s about finding the play with my cast and the other creatives involved. This is our work, in a much smaller space. I don’t want to feel pressurised to find a particular reading.
Why is the White Bear a good venue for this play?
Personal Enemy, Osborne’s second play, premiered there last year, so it’s lovely to be able to pair them in one space. It’s also perfect for the theme of repression. When you have seven actors on stage, it’s claustrophobic; it almost feels as though there’s not enough space for everyone. It’s a beautiful mirroring of the play. It will feel as though the audience is sharing the experience with the characters.
What do you hope the audience’s experience of the play will be?
The play is about expression, facing up to problems, and it’s about escape. I hope people will leave the theatre reflecting on the damage that suppressing someone can do.
What’s up next for you?
I’ve just started rehearsing Theatre Delicatessens’s pop-up Henry V, which is very exciting. The company recently moved into the old BBC site in Marylebone Gardens and this production will launch their residency. I’m having great fun with it!
The Devil Inside Him is at the White Bear Theatre from 1 – 26 May. For more information, and tickets, see: http://www.offwestend.com/index.php/plays/view/7767
First published by OffWestEnd.com