Coronavirus is bound over time to prompt a substantial body of literature, and leave it to Sir David Hare – the leading British playwright – to be among those leading the charge. While no one would claim that Beat the Devil, his solo play at the Bridge Theatre through Nov. 7, can be counted in the same breath as such career highlights as Plenty, Racing Demon or even his previous Middle East-themed solo piece Via Dolorosa, the 50-minute show functions as a report from the frontline of having experienced the virus and come out the other side. His sympathetic director is Nicholas Hytner, who deserves applause all his own for getting his southeast London playhouse up and running during such a parlous time for the theatre industry here and in the U.S.
Think of this as the kind of first-person chronicle you might find in the London Review of Books, here given star wattage by the unexpected presence of Ralph Fiennes in the role of the 73-year-old Hare. In his previous monologues (Berlin/Wall included), Hare doubled as actor and author, but you can understand his desire to pass the torch to a theatre and film stalwart 15-plus years his junior. Not only did Fiennes star more than 20 years ago in Hare’s sellout Almeida Theatre version of Chekhov’s Ivanov (directed by Jonathan Kent), but one can hardly imagine someone who has come through as virulent a form of Covid-19 as Hare has wanting to hold an audience of 250 people across a run of several months, even in repertory. (The Bridge, in accordance with the dictates of the pandemic, has reduced its seating capacity drastically below the usual 900.)
To hear Fiennes’ casual, often caustically funny Hare describe it, the writer was squeezed into an airless cutting room tending to his forthcoming BBC drama series Roadkill, starring Hugh Laurie, when he was beset by an ailment where “the rules don’t apply.” After a mild onset and “a pageant of random symptoms,” he is soon experiencing wild shifts in temperature, at one point becoming so chilly that his wife, the French designer (and now sculptor) Nicole Farhi lays her body across his in an attempt to warm him up. That may be too much information for some, but it’s wonderful to hear that Farhi’s mother lived to be 102.
As long as Fiennes’ personably upfront Hare is detailing an often-agonizing path toward recovery, abetted no end it would seem by a particularly deft and decent GP, Beat the Devil compels. Where it falls away into something pro forma are the political jibes at a heedless and inept government response from Boris Johnson and his team that are funny, sure, but won’t surprise anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to British politics before and during the pandemic. Hare’s stance, fully commendable though it is, feels like well-trodden turf, whereas it’s one man’s reckoning with a medical beast that this time last year the world could never have dreamed of that propels the terrifying substance of this reminiscence towards the stuff of nightmare.