Thursday, May 13, 2010

Dante's Inferno presented by Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre at The Old Museum, Brisbane, 6 - 22 May 2010

(Gustave Dore's Avaricious and Prodigal)

What you see below are my responses to some review questions that will be published online at next week. Enjoy!
Inferno, the first cantica in Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, has proven to be an overwhelming favourite among generations of artists who have repeatedly appropriated this first part of the poem over the lesser known Purgatorio and Paradiso sections. You just have to view Peter Greenaway’s video project A TV Dante, or the detailed illustrations rendered by Gustave Dore and William Blake, or even the film Dante’s Inferno using hand-drawn paper puppets, to see how this epic has attained and retained its status as a classic today. Now Brisbane audiences have their chance to experience Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre’s own revision of Hell, Dante’s Inferno: Living Hell, set in the heritage-listed grounds of The Old Museum and running until 22 May.

What did you like about this performance?

One of the strengths of this production is its ability to place the audience in the role of a questing pilgrim. When left alone to roam the conical layers of hell, we have the chance to play protagonist, poet, and narrator, by taking Dante's place in the original text. As a theatre-goer who is used to passively sitting quietly through the duration of a play, I found the experience of wandering between the third (the gluttonous), fourth (the avaricious/spendthrifts), and fifth (the melancholic) circles of hell a welcome change from the confining codes of audience behaviour. The first half of the performance set outside the building recalls the mystery plays popularised in Europe during the Middle Ages which were known to dramatise biblical subjects in a churchyard or marketplace. We are even provided with our own heralds in the form of two joking guides who deliver vernacular synopses of the narrative. Couple this with the various canto prologues printed on banners around the site, and we are left in no doubt about the nature of the errors committed by the wretched souls before us. It’s also worth adding that it seemed entirely appropriate and clever to tie three tormented souls under a large sausage tree marking the circle of gluttony. Equally inventive was the adoption of a leafy arched hedge as the gateway into hell. Both instances demonstrate imaginative and judicious use of the grounds that mark this play as a must-see for Brisbane audiences.

What didn't you like about the performance?

As much as I enjoyed the freedom of taking in the sites of hell outside, I found the various distractions and interruptions (ballet students walking through the middle of performance spaces, flashing beams from cars parking too close to the setting, difficulty in hearing some of the performers) detracted from the experience as a whole. Considering I attended the first preview night, I’m sure these problems will be ironed out as the season progresses. I should also add that the burlesque routine in the circle of lust, exhibiting what can only be described as bawdy zombies, failed not only in its execution, but in its choice of subject over the Francesca and Paolo episode. The sentiment and pathos in this story of two lovers is arguably one of the most celebrated episodes in the Inferno, yet it was overlooked by this production, resulting in an uncomplicated representation of lust that failed to capture the psychological depth explored by Dante in the original. This is just one example among many where I thought the production lacked emotional heft.

Was there anything remarkable about your experience?
Stellar performances from Lia Reutens and Earl Kim during the second half help the company wrest free from the dead hand of Dante and embrace a more relevant interpretation of the lower depths of hell more familiar to a contemporary audience. We first meet the couple sitting in a kitchen. They are expert in the art of self-deception; a situation I’m sure many of us can relate to in this realistic depiction of a living hell. Their dull table talk is thrown into relief by a chorus line belting I’m Through With Love (made famous by Marilyn Monroe) into spatulas instead of microphones. I think this is a good example of how a transition in style from the lofty to the commonplace works well, bringing some levity to the interpretation of an otherwise earnest text. It’s also worth noting the plastic beauty of the actor playing an angel sent to guide us into the second half of the performance. Her serenity was enthralling, and enhanced beautifully by makeup that gave her the quality of well-formed sculpture.

Why should we go and see this show?

The original text of the Inferno is famous for the imaginative variety of its torments at every level of hell, but I think in this production it is the last region in the journey that provides the most thought-provoking and dismal depiction of life. It is a region blinkered by an ideology that affects every member of today’s audience. I know I wasn’t alone in my surprise at how evil manifests itself in this concluding scene. I’m not going to spoil the ending for those yet to attend a performance. Just keep your eyes, ears, and mind open. You’ll discover just how tragically flawed we all are in our irrepressible desire for knowledge, power, and happiness.