On sitting down to enjoy a post-show drink the friend I invited to this intense interpretation of the first part of Dante Aligherei’s Divine Comedy, the 14th century epic allegory of a man’s descent through the nine circles of hell, sheepishly admitted they may have told colleagues they were going to see Dante’s Peak.
Well, one can but try.
Full disclosure leads me to sadly announce that at The Rag Factory there was little sign of either active volcanoes or renowned vulcanologist Pierce Brosnan.
Instead audiences had better buckle up and prepare themselves for 80 minutes of earnestly performed theatre that attempts to blend the meditations of an early renaissance literary masterpiece with the post-1970’s politico-spiritual philosophies recently given a new lease of life through the ever enthusiastic talking head that has become Russell the Brand.
There is something thrilling about watching a young company work through the process of creating a form of confrontational theatre of their own. And Craft Theatre certainly know how to talk a good game. Their website is full of intriguing statements about how they have “a practice that allows the actor to understand and become master of their body, emotional reservoirs, and internal mechanism. Our unique way of working keeps the actor present, authentic, grounded, and always searching for development”. And some of the rest is perhaps best left to Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner.
The working techniques reference the incorporation of physical exhaustion and identity deconstruction, which on the surface doesn’t seem entirely pleasant but at least sounds more appropriate for Dante’s Inferno than for, say, The Importance of Being Earnest.
It contains several lovely moments that suggest a level of trust between performers not always evident on stage. In particular the bedroom scenes between Dante (Lucas John Mahoney) and his partner (Maria Swisher) display a naturalistic intimacy more often associated with US indie filmmaking, and it provides a realism that grounds Mahoney’s Dante in the world we recognise.
It is a striking central performance and Mahoney deserves credit for managing to give Dante an everyman quality despite sporting a beard and clothing ensemble that seemingly allows to him to bridge the gap from hipster financial wageslave to allegorically redeemed Christ-like figure.
Equally impressive is the physical choreography that marks Dante’s descent into hell. It is fresh and inventive and, for someone who has discretely yawned through too much contemporary dance, entirely engaging. The movement piece involving Swisher and Mahoney was sensuous yet powerfully raw. Just like their earlier scenes it had two actors existing entirely in the moment, inhabiting their characters and living rather than performing.
There is a rough and ready feel to the proceedings that gives everything a semi-improvised air and this would fit in with the Craft working method where it is aimed that every performance is different. It’s advantages can be seen in the overwhelming sense of honesty and purpose, and the sparky energy that creates an intense onstage atmosphere.
However it also has serious flaws. Too much energy and it all becomes tonally unbalanced; performances became increasingly uncontrolled and parodic. The naturalistic approach led to actors talking over each other; fine in a quiet, still scene but as the volume and pace increased, the sound bouncing of the bare walls of The Rag Factory meaning it became impossible to distinguish what characters were actually saying.
Ultimately Dante’s Inferno: A Modern Telling is bold, experimental theatre making that, like much bold, experimental theatre making, fails as much as it succeeds. There is certainly talent in the ensemble so if they can find a collective voice that provides much greater substance and coherence than the sentimentally trite Brand-isms that punctuate this production, Craft Theatre’s distinctive approach to the rehearsal performance may eventually bear fruit.
Watch the trailer: