Wednesday, 6 September 2017

REVIEW: Dante’s Divine Comedy at the Barons Court Theatre

Theatre company So it goes has just started a run at the Barons Court Theatre with Dante’s Divine Comedy, showing until 30 September. It was my first time visiting this theatre, which is small but has very good acoustics and provides great intimacy. Somehow, the audience feels it is watching something hidden, unique, and the space also fits very well with Dante Alighieri’s epic poem taking us through inferno, purgatory and heaven, hopefully to find his true love Beatrice as well as himself. 

The stage’s back wall is lit by the image of a broken screen as the audience enters, and during the show, it often becomes to background for Dante’s ascent during his quest, showing shadows of terrifying creatures and elements gone wild (played as a magnificent ensemble of five female actresses). I very much enjoyed the use of lighting and the animations by Matthew Kirke and Douglas Baker, which gave me a cave-like feeling and truly took me to where Dante was. One of the last kaleidoscopic moving images of Dante’s face was particularly strong. 

On his journey, he is accompanied by Virgil (played by Jack Blackburn) who, because he is a pagan, will not reach heaven, but is able to keep Dante from giving up on his journey. Later, as our hero reaches heaven, Beatrice is waiting for him, willing him to surrender himself and his logic to truly embrace Heaven. This proves difficult for Dante who, when asked about faith and love by his harsh interrogators, seeks refuge in logic. Heaven seems a painful place for that reason, but it is just because it wants humans to forget themselves and what they know, to find peace. 

The hurdles and visions Dante has along the way were delightful, between people he used to know in life who have turned into trees or are constantly burning, to the moaning winds and the objects in Heaven that keep floating through space even when Dante tries to settle them down on the ground. This vision stayed with me, and the ensemble (Sofia Greenacre, Marialuisa Ferro, Sophia Speakman, Michaela Mackenzie) worked greatly together and with precision to create a nightmarish ride, supported by movement director Matthew Coulton. The fighting choreographed in the small space was also impressive. 

The text, adapted and directed by Douglas Baker, mixes classical poetry with
contemporary words and movement. This brings humour to the piece and a sense of camaraderie. I think some of it could be timed just slightly better, but it is definitely something to explore and that works for texts of this magnitude and seriousness. It also made me want to look into the original text more, and understand even more about all the episodes Dante put himself through – because in end, he wrote himself into his own poem! The final sequence of the play tactfully reminds us of this to make everyone actively think about the philosophy behind it. Unfortunately, I thought the end went on for slightly too long, perhaps because it needed a bit more structure after the first very clear episodes on the way to Heaven. 

Each actor was very energetic and strong, spreading the atmosphere across the room with their strong voices. At first, I thought Alex Chard was too young to play Dante, but I enjoyed his maturity and tenacious performance. Jack Blackburn was a good side kick to the hero, and Kathryn Taylor-Gears provided the right heavenly distance when finally caught up with by Dante. 

This is a visually strong production with great actors that will hopefully make you curious about the original work of Dante Alighieri!

Review by Sophie Tergeist 

Rating: ★★★★
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