Review: Dante’s Divine Comedy at Barons Court Theatre

I mean this in the nicest way possible… but if you’re looking for a theatre in which to stage a play about descending into hell, I can think of few better than Barons Court. Partly because you actually do have to descend a flight of stairs to get there, but mostly because with its low arched ceilings and shadowy corners, it guarantees an atmospheric setting for any production.

The directors of So It Goes Theatre clearly had a similar instinct, and have returned to Barons Court for a second time with their adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, based on the epic 14th century poem by Dante Alighieri. A dark tale of suffering and loss, this modern retelling also has an unexpectedly wry sense of humour, and is packed full of witty one-liners that are often as surprising as they are enjoyable. Who knew hell would be so funny? (Although I suppose the clue’s in the title…)

Following the death of Beatrice, the woman he loves, Dante’s about to kill himself when up pops the Roman poet Virgil, who takes him on a slightly grim guided tour of hell and purgatory before dropping him off at the gates of paradise, where Beatrice awaits. But their reunion may not be quite as joyous as expected…

Alex Chard is great as the depressed yet determined Dante, really coming into his own in the second half of the production when he has the opportunity to get into some meaty theological debate. His budding bromance with Virgil, played by Jack Blackburn, is fun but also surprisingly touching, particularly the moment when Dante promises to have a word with God about getting his new best mate through the Pearly Gates. Their witty banter, right up to the moment Virgil leaves, means the icy encounter that follows with Kathryn Taylor-Gears’ Beatrice is all the more jarring.

A hard-working and incredibly versatile all-female Chorus (Sofia Greenacre, Marialuisa Ferro, Sophia Speakman and Michaela Mackenzie, along with Kathryn Taylor-Gears) accompany Dante on every step of his journey, as the condemned souls suffering the countless torments of hell, those unfortunates stuck in the limbo of purgatory – brilliantly reimagined as the mind-numbing boredom of a daily commute – and the shockingly unpleasant residents of heaven. I’d go so far as to say that the Chorus steal the show in the first part of the play; their pain, fear and anger grows ever more palpable as Dante and Virgil descend deeper into the inferno.

It would be easy to assume that a small cast of seven, in a tiny pub theatre, might not be able to quite reproduce the epic scale of heaven and hell – but Douglas Baker’s production is a masterclass in how to do a lot with very little. A couple of handheld torches, a few chairs, a balloon and some cardboard cut-outs prove more than enough to create some fantastic effects, particularly when combined with video projections and some exquisite movement sequences directed by Matthew Coulton. The whole show is so absorbing, in fact, that it comes as something of a shock when Virgil suddenly breaks the fourth wall and reminds Dante – and us – that we’re just watching a piece of theatre created by the man himself; all his suffering is entirely self-inflicted.

I don’t know much about Dante’s original poem (though I may check it now), and I’m definitely no theologian – but neither is really necessary in order to appreciate this creative, powerful and really enjoyable production. So again, in the nicest possible way – I politely recommend that you go to hell.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is at Barons Court Theatre until 30th September.

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