Now that the run is over I can deal with issues that would have been spoilers for anyone going to see the show later in the run. I think what is most striking about how Welsh has reconstructed Stevenson’s story really comes out in the ending but it’s there all the way through as she constructs different relationships between the three main characters and the bottle. In the original story only Keawe has any complexity as a character and the ending is something of a cop out; a character who considers himself already damned just shows up and makes the, fatal, final purchase. Louise Welsh handles this quite differently.
Let’s just recap what the bottle is all about. It’s indestructible (forged in the flames of Hell), grants the owner any wish except immortality or renewed youth but condemns the owner to eternal damnation if he dies in possession. The bottle can’t be thrown away or given away but it can be sold as long as the selling price is lower than the purchase price.
So what is Welsh doing in the final scene and what does it say about the characters? James and Catherine are on a remote island with, one must presume, the lowest value coinage in the world. The price of the bottle has dropped to three centimes so a potential buyer must be found at two centimes. Of course this can’t be done because any potential two centime buyer will realise a buyer can’t be found at one centime. (Actually this paradox applies at any price but there you go). James was the last purchaser of the bottle which he bought to cure Catherine of a deadly illness. Catherine feels bound by love and honour to save James so she arranges to sell the bottle temporarily to a very poor man for three centimes promising him she will buy it back for two as soon as he has made enough money to raise his family from poverty. In other words she will accept damnation to save James. This duly happens.
Now, we also need to bear in mind that James and Catherine desperately want a child but James has refused to use the bottle for this purpose. James has made use of the bottle but he’s done with it until he needs it as the only way of saving Catherine and then only for that one thing. He sees the bottle as an evil he has used but, until dire necessity intervenes, he wants nothing more to do with it. His reluctance to buy the thing in the first place is reinforced by experience. Catherine seems to have an entirely utilitarian relationship with the bottle. She needs it, for a specific purpose, so she buys it and would be rid of it asap if she could.
James discovers that Catherine has the bottle and pleads with her to sell it to him for one centime. She’s not having it. Their love is being expressed in terms of who will go to Hell for the other. Enter Richard, pretty much out of the blue. We have seen his relationship with the bottle. He is the youth who persuaded James to buy it in the first place. He has sold and bought it again many times, never being able to fully free himself from it. It has reduced him to a physical and psychological wreck. He is the “bottle addict”. Now he effectively forces Catherine to sell him the bottle one more time, this time for the fatal one centime. He is damned! Then come Richard’s words, the most disturbing and puzzling in the piece, “I am a dead man. I wish Catherine and James a healthy child”. James pleads with him “Take it back! Good cannot come from evil”. Richard drinks the contents of the bottle and dies horribly. Catherine closes the piece with the words “Something moves”.
It’s incredible theatre but what does it mean? Clearly it’s a powerful statement about the extent of Richard’s addiction and James’ and Catherine’s mutual love but what of the wish? Benediction or curse? And what is Richard’s motivation? There’s no way of knowing.