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.

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.