Pros: Imaginative physical theatre and slick choreography. Top-notch acting from a talented cast.
Cons: Some of the dialogue and the treatment of themes was a bit heavy-handed.
Dante’s Inferno: A Modern Telling is indeed that. Our present-day Dante is a business high flyer on course for a midlife crisis, whose marriage and personal morality is put under strain from the endless rat race and frustrating pursuit of wealth. The opening line of the 700-year-old epic poem, where Dante finds himself in the middle of a dark wood moments before his descent into hell, is spoken well into the piece. When murmured most persuasively by actor Lucas John Mahoney, we have already witnessed much of the desolation and futility of modern life, and the hell Dante has come to inhabit.
Performed in the emptied out and pleasingly white-bricked warehouse of The Rag Factory just off Brick Lane, this production employs no raised stage or props, just masses of space with corridor style seating on three sides. There is an outstanding commitment from this talented and athletic cast of six, whose physical exertions and displays were thrilling and for the most part, impressively unsettling. When you arrive the actors, dressed in semi-clad plain clothing, are duelling with sticks, ducking and diving each other’s ferocious swipes. Sartre’s dictum ‘hell is other people’ came to mind. The office scenes were great as they captured a sense of the inhumane demands and pressures of an ever-increasing economic exploitation, created largely from cleverly timed utterances and slick choreography of frantic working life. The slew of acrobatics contortions throughout would give any circus troupe a run for their money.
When the lights dim you are most tantalisingly transported to hell, and later on helped back out of it – thanks to the sweet harmonies of the cast that accompany Dante’s redemption. The idea that the hell you make for yourself on earth is one you experience in the afterlife is apparent, and you do get a very real sense of the circles of inferno that Dante Alighieri envisioned, including limbo, greed and lust. At points the dialogue was unsubtle and moralising and this got in the way of being able to experience the appealing notion that what Dante must overcome is a self-imposed imprisonment of the mind.
There’s a fine line in ensuring the torments of the characters don’t pass too readily onto the audience and alas the chaotic shouts and clamouring for relief did wear me down at a few points. I would have liked greater coherency between the parts of the poem that they use and the play’s action. That said, the emphasis is on the audience feeling the sensations and emotions that arise from the heady mix of bodily and vocal exchanges. Seeing Dante carried off by the actors as if tumbling through hell, and the collective mass of bodies writhing and pleading, contained all the potency of despair.
Overall this is a clever, unpredictable and visceral piece of experimental theatre that overcomes the vulnerabilities it dares to risk, and in doing so, manages to open up for its cared-for audience a steady space for contemplation. The ensemble did marvellously well to perform as a cohesive unit, given the sad circumstances of the untimely passing of one of the actors shortly before the play’s opening (The production is dedicated to Kan Bonfils’ life and memory.)
The cast and crew were hospitable in a relaxed and welcoming manner. Director, Rocky Rodrigues Jr. kindly announced at the start that “there is no heating, so it is better to leave your jacket on”: a nice parallel with the poem, within which the deepest part of the inferno is not hot but completely iced over. So the chill in the air felt most appropriate!
Authors: Dante Alighieri, Russell Brand, John Cage, and Rocky Rodriguez, Jr.
Director: Rocky Rodriguez, Jr.
Production: Craft Theatre
Booking Until: 1 February 2015
Box Office: 020 7419 4841
Booking Link: http://www.craft-theatre.com/