“The Devil Inside” is a new work from Scottish Opera (Co-commissioned and co-produced with Music Theatre Wales) by Stuart MacRae (music) and Louise Welsh (libretto). This dark tale of a demonic imp trapped within a bottle is a modern updating of a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson – “The Bottle Imp”.
This bottle has the power to grant its owner every wish that they can ever dream of coming true, but there are two catches – if you should die before selling the bottle on to a new owner, your deal with the demonic bottle imp will send your soul to Hell for damnation throughout eternity, and in order to sell the bottle you must sell it on for less than you have purchased it for. Over the years as the bottle has changed hands many times the price is now getting so low that it is becoming impossible to sell for less. Also, as we find out, no one who owns the bottle is ever quite the same again.
Our story here opens with two weary young travellers Richard (Nicholas Sharratt) and James (Ben McAteer) as they seek shelter in the mountains from a storm and come across an old man (Steven Page) living in fabulous wealth in a mansion. After some hesitation on hearing the powers and the pitfalls of owning this bottle, James is persuaded by Richard (as he is the only one with any money) to buy the bottle for $50.
James builds a massive property empire and meets the love of his life Catherine (Rachel Kelly) and they seem to have everything they ever want, except a child. After some persuasion, James keeps his original part of the deal that first night in the old man’s house and sells the bottle to Richard.
This is pretty much a stripped down performance from Scottish Opera with very basic sets and only four performers, but here in this setting it all works perfectly. When you strip away from opera all the trappings of grandeur that sometimes surround it, opera is nothing more than another way to tell a story, and this is one of those wonderful stories that works like all the best stories do by pulling the audience right into it and leaving everyone wanting to know how the story ends. It is because of this wonderful story that I am not going to spend too much time reviewing its twisting plot as it examines both our belief in a Hell and the darker sides of human greed and addictions, as this story really works best when you do not know what is coming next.
With a small cast like this, much of the strength of the performance has to rest with how our cast interpret their characters and give them life, and the libretto gives more than enough depth to them to allow our cast to bring to life real individual personalities on stage. Standing out for me tonight was Nicholas Sharratt’s portrayal of Richard as his encounters with the bottle imp drive him further and further into the realms of mental illness. This is emphasised even more by Richard seated and staring at artwork that looks at first to be just a large abstract painting but is in fact a Rorschach test image...I wonder what each member of the audience saw tonight. Nicholas is fortunate to have this role because it is to me the strongest and most interesting of them all.
This production leaves many questions at the end. You will understand this when you get there and telling you now would spoil the story a little, but do not leave your seat until the very end as the bottle still has a surprise or two left.
The set as I said at the beginning was very basic and to me a nice touch is the use of shadows moving behind screens (or being projected onto) on this set. This is very much like the old “Shadow Plays” that were so common in the 19th century when RL Stevenson originally wrote “The Bottle Imp”
This is a very dark piece of work in parts and the music reflects that in tone all the way through. This is definitely not a “leave the theatre singing the songs” opera, but a story told in song (sung in English) and although I was initially hesitant about how this would work on stage, it turned out to be a real surprise to just sit in the theatre and listen to this music and the story unfolding.
A smaller scale production, but I hope a big success for Scottish Opera because it is just as important that brave new works like this are being commissioned and performed as it is that the well known classics are done, and Scottish Opera to its credit is always prepared to take that risk and work with new material.
Review byTom King