I have recently been reunited with boxes of my possessions that had been shut away in storage for a year or two. Unpacking and sorting my stuff within my new and roomy home has uncovered forgotten notebooks and diaries, and loose pages of my old stories and poems. Some surprise me, and are collated into my current live performances, treasured. Others bring on the cringe yet still I can’t bring myself to discard them completely. Instead I place them into files alongside other disappointments on the off chance they may jar just the right thought or memory when stumbled upon in the future for a good story or a better poem. It hadn’t really occurred to me that others may read them at some indeterminable time in the future. It hadn’t – until I went to the opening night of The Devil Inside Him at the New Theatre in Cardiff on tuesday, and the delightful after-party at Cardiff Ats Institute for a dose of schmoozing afterwards.
This month’s production from The National Theatre of Wales is only the second to be made of John Osborne’s first ever play, recently discovered in the British Library Archives where it had been filed under ‘Caborne’ by Lord Chamberlain’s censors. The play was written in 1948 when Osborne was just 18 and several years off his breakthrough 1956 hit Don’t Look Back in Anger. Linking back to his Welsh heritage – Osborne’s father was born in Newport –The Devil Inside Him is set in a small, deeply religious Welsh village and calls into question whether God is to be found on the hillsides or inside the cold walls of a chapel. It also examines aspects of love from God’s love to maternal love, Huw cast as a boy on the brink of manhood who has been deprived of both affection and acceptance. Almost titled A Cry For Love, the play was penned with Osborne’s then-lover Stella, the 30-year-old wife of Patrick Desmond, in whose rep company both were touring. It follows the 1950s murder mystery rep conventions and yet the darker undercurrents of damaged souls, fear, repressed passion and societies were far before its time, messages which resonate today: ‘They’ve been killing the inside of me ever since I can remember. Is it worse to murder a body or a soul?’
Packed with poetic language and teenage idealism, it is an existential story not without learning curves in plotting for the young writer. Butcher and budding poet Huw is a believable angry young man, an outsider struggling to find his place in pious society. But the other characters’ reactions and relationships to him are not always convincing, especially in the post-interval wrapping up of the mystery. These niggles aside, the play is a powerful one, and where, with Volcano’s Shelf Life, it was the stage itself (The Old Library, Swansea) that got audiences gushing as much as the promenade skits, here it was the performance that took the spotlight. The stellar cast were superb especially Olivier Award winner Iwan Rheon’s hair-pulling, twitchingly manic performance as Huw, and the laugh-a-minute tittle-tattle Mrs Evans (Rachel Lumberg). The set and lighting were both equally stunning and atmospheric – well done to Alex Eales and Malcolm Rippeth.
Consumed alongside John Osborne’s autobiography Looking Back, Never Explain, Never Apologise – extracts of which NTW have kindly reproduced in the programme – it becomes clear how very autobiographical many of the themes in The Devil Inside Him are. Take these lines: ‘I assumed that being Welsh and believing in God were the darkest heart of religion.’; ‘Nothing ever strikes me with such despair and disbelief as the truly cold heart…’ and on existentialism and breaking off an engagement: ‘My untutored understanding told me that I was standing at a crucially existential crossroads. The problem was simple: how to get rid of Renee without causing her too much pain and me too much guilt, and how to leave home without my mother and manage to support myself.’
As Osborne had been so frank in his own autobiography, the unearthing of this earlier work would probably worry him less. Yet what would he feel about the quality of his work, and what is the view of other writers? Is finding out how great Carver’s editor was, for example, necessary in the reading of a text? Should all writers who discover they are to be published quickly destroy all evidence of inferior times and works, and personal diaries charting youth’s joys and misdemeanours? I have artist friends who burn huge bodies of their work when they feel they are no longer happy with them, or that having these pieces in their possession is preventing them from moving forward. Who is right? What do you do with your old writing – treasure or trash?
The Devil Inside Him runs at the New Theatre in Cardiff until 16 May 2010.