Interview: Douglas Baker, Dante’s Divine Comedy

So It Goes Theatre return to Barons Court next month with their 21st century interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Adapted from the 700-year-old narrative poem, it’s the story of Dante’s quest to rediscover the reasons for living by reuniting with his lost childhood love Beatrice; to do this he’s taken on a tour of hell, purgatory and heaven by mysterious stranger Virgil. “Naturally there’s loads to explore: faith, morality, friendship, redemption. You name it, there’s a whole world inside this show,” says director Douglas Baker.

Funnily enough, Douglas didn’t originally set out to adapt Dante’s classic poem. “I’m embarrassed to say it was basically a complete accident,” he admits. “I had in my head an entirely different piece of source material – which I won’t go into now because it may surface in the near future. However, when I arrived at the Barons Court, I knew instantly it wouldn’t work there, so I had a mad weekend reading lots of different texts to try and find something else to do.

“I wanted something that was seriously old, out of copyright, brimming with theatrical potential. There was one particularly desperate moment where I was considering stringing all Shakespeare’s sonnets together into a narrative; thank God I found the Divine Comedy. As I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. It drew me in with every passage. The pace of the thing – despite its hefty length – is incredible.”

Despite its appeal, turning Dante’s original poem into a 90-minute play for a 21st century audience came with some pretty big challenges. “I don’t want to give too much away but I think there were three big problems,” says Douglas. “Firstly, trying to create a dramatic arc in a poem that is essentially a series of meetings where the main character simply accepts what he sees as truth; structurally this is so boring and doesn’t make so much sense as a coherent story. So we’ve flipped, rearranged and cut down lots in order to – fingers crossed – make an emotionally believable journey.

“Secondly, we wanted a culture in the rehearsal room where we worked openly with only dialogue on the page. So it was a challenge to try not premeditating what I thought it would look like on stage. Even though scenes were brimming with potential, I didn’t want to lock us into something that we couldn’t achieve. So finding that balance between honouring both the text and the devising process was tricky, but hopefully we’ve made it work.

“The other main problem was trying to present medieval morality sympathetically. I quickly saw that it was impossible, so as a result we’ve had to take some liberties. Our Dante is younger and more rebellious. I thought that youthful mindset could work because we the audience are basically seeing this stuffy old fashioned world through Dante’s eyes, so we can hopefully justify the difference between the Dante in the poem and the Dante we present on stage. The story is the same, but Dante’s feelings towards it have been modernised.”

Douglas is looking forward to introducing new audiences to Dante’s work, and says prior knowledge of the Divine Comedy isn’t a must: “I would say not. Part of the attraction to the poem was the feeling that many people knew of it, but not in any real detail. There’s something incredibly exciting about introducing people to a dusty old book for the first time; perhaps our interpretation will encourage people to read it for themselves and come to their own understanding about morality or the afterlife. I hope people will see our piece as a series of questions rather than assertions. The hope is we can ignite curiosities that will push people to reach their own conclusions.”

The show returns to Barons Court for a second time following a well-received run in April. “Being back is strangely unnerving,” says Douglas. “We always forget how small the stage is, so it requires seriously precise coordination to keep things visually interesting. Luckily our movement director Matthew is a genius at utilising space in interesting ways, so your eye is always drawn correctly. Other than that it’s just been a case of balancing creating with re-creating, we don’t want to just redo the original production but rather build on it and improve.”

This latest run, which opens on 5th September, sees almost all of the seven-strong cast reprise their roles. “They are the most generous people you could ever hope to meet,” says Douglas. “The bond between performer and director can be so fragile if egos are at play. If a cast don’t trust the director they will seize up and work only for themselves. But these cast members work for each other, they are beautifully spirited people.

“As a director I often get my actors to do very weird weird things to create the spectacle for the audience, so if it’s to translate into a coherent performance where they can commit completely it’s utterly reliant upon their trust in me. I think we have that trust, so the rehearsal room is a joyful space where we can really play and find the truth in what we’re doing.”

Douglas co-founded So It Goes Theatre with producer Charles Golding. “Charlie and I created the company way back in 2011, its been on hiatus for a while because Charlie now has a family but we always knew it would be back some day,” he explains. “We wanted to do a combination of reimagining classic stories and telling brand new ones. We want to showcase new performance talents in a largely ensemble context. We were also aware that the majority of actors auditioning for us were female, so we decided very quickly to produce work that in general favoured largely female casts. Maybe it was pragmatic rather than righteous, but it’s worked for us so far.”

Book now for Dante’s Divine Comedy at Barons Court Theatre from 5th-30th September.

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