In 2013, Scots Whay Hae! and the Association Of Scottish Literary Studies collaborated in a series of recordings to commemorate Robert Louis Stevenson Day. Writers Alan Bissett, James Robertson and Louise Welsh read a Stevenson short story each; ‘Thrawn Janet’, The Tale Of Tod Lapraik’ and ‘The Bottle Imp’ respectively. ‘The Bottle Imp’ was already a favourite for Welsh, but reading it aloud must have bonded her more closely with the malevolent sprite as it appears she couldn’t leave it alone for long. She had to return to it at least one more time.
The result, in collaboration with composer Stuart Macrae, is Scottish Opera’s co-production with The Music Theatre of Wales, The Devil Inside, a dark, unsettling and unexpectedly moving production, which opened in Glasgow’s Theatre Royal this week. It is mesmerizing from start to end as words, music, performance and setting all work together to present this deceptively simple tale in such a manner so that the unfolding horror is heightened rather than unnecessarily distracted from.
It’s ostensibly a four-hander, with Ben McAteer, Nicholas Sharratt, Rachel Kelly and Steven Page playing all parts, but the Bottle Imp is a character in its own right; deceitful and seductive, moving from a spark to a flame when man’s basest instincts and emotions are aroused. The eerie green glow that emits from it carries real menace, and it is quite believable that something wicked lies within.
By moving the action from 19th century Hawaii to the modern day, clear themes of greed, desire, addiction, temptation, and the twisted ideology at the heart of western capitalism emerge. Wall Street’s famous mantra, “Greed is good” has never rung so hollow. The Devil Inside is a modern morality tale, but one with eternal questions at its heart.
The lean drama and ingenious premise of Stevenson’s original are retained, but there are lines in the libretto which are prime Louise Welsh, and which add to the unease; “When I love, I see him in the line of a woman’s throat”, being just one memorable example. I know the story, and I was on the edge of my seat, but I imagine if you didn’t then the tension would be almost unbearable. The person sitting next to me in a rapt theatre certainly seemed to feel that way, unable to look at some points. If there had been a couch in the vicinity, she would have been hiding behind it.
And with good reason, because The Devil Inside, like its source material, is a primarily a horror story. If you want points of comparison, think of The Shining, Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby – there is a balance between the supernatural and the psychological, and where the balance lies is completely down to you.
“What about Stuart MacRae’s music?”, I hear you opera lovers cry. Well, what I know about opera you could write in magic marker on the tip of Brunhilde’s spear, but the score made me want to pull out the Tom Waits’ albums Swordfishtrombones and Frank’s Wild Years as it shares their angular sounds, discordant notes and sense of unease. In other words, the music lifted the theatre to another level, just as it should.
The Devil Inside is a fabulous production, and Scottish Opera and everyone involved should be very proud. Forget what you may think you know about opera, theatre, Stevenson and Scottish Literature; there is something for everyone here, familiar yet fresh and new, which is increasingly rare. It’s also heartening to see Scotland’s rich literary tradition used as inspiration. After recent successful theatre productions of Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour, Lanark, and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, this feels like a high-water mark for such collaborations. More of this type of thing.
The Devil Inside is on at The King’s Theatre, Edinburgh this evening (30/01) before touring the UK and Canada.
Here is a behind the scenes trailer, followed by Louise Welsh’s reading of ‘The Bottle Imp’:
‘The Bottle Imp’