‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’
Inscribed over the gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, entering the production of ‘Shakespeare in Hell’ in Roborough Studios did cause me some apprehension. Described as a ‘black comedy horror’, the mash-up of Renaissance texts including Shakespeare’s plays, Marlowe’s ‘Dr Faustus’ and Dante’s ‘Inferno’ forms the finale of the ‘Torture Trilogy’.
The adaption, produced by Brite Theatre in collaboration with So Potent Arts, follows Ariel through Dante’s nine circles of Hell to spy on the damnation of eighteen Shakespearean characters as they suffer for their earthly sins of lust, gluttony, wrath, heresy, violence and treachery. Ariel, played by Dana Bowman, masked and winged, led the way through the series of rooms in which the promenade took place, pausing in each circle. The atmosphere was suitably uneasy; the darkness, the eerie red glow and the heat of the room created the hellish backdrop for some disquieting moments.
The production consisted of a series of dialogues between the two characters on each level as the audience progressed deeper into Hell. Several of the pairings excelled particularly, as the two actors portrayed raw emotion with great talent, frequently in the form of monologue. The text itself was taken primarily from each individual play, although the variation of context and intonation gave new meaning to the famous lines.
In the circle of faithlessness, the characters of Volumnia (from ‘Coriolanus’, played by Kris Wing Jennings) and Leontes (from ‘A Winter’s Tale’, played by Bryony Reynolds) wept in endless grief for causing the death of their sons through their pride and suspicion. This scene was the most emotional, and displayed real talent by the two actors as they wept hopelessly over pieces of clothing and remembered the children they left to die. The scene was almost uncomfortable to watch as grief was exposed very publicly, and the audience were led past them by Ariel, leaving them huddled on the floor.
In the fifth circle of Wrath, Lady Macbeth (played by Melissa Barrett) and Goneril (from ‘King Lear’, played by Emily Carding) unleashed burning rage on each other with unsettling effect. Goneril’s wrath was volatile and vengeful, while Lady Macbeth’s cold anger was incredibly disquieting as she cast spells and mocked Goneril’s passion and lack of control. Melissa’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth was certainly one of my favourites throughout the production, as she coldly talked about child murder; ‘while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from its boneless gums and dashed the brains out’. As Goneril grew more enraged and Lady Macbeth more sadistic, Goneril was force-fed blood from a goblet which caused her unpleasant and violent death, sprawled and blood-soaked across the floor. But in Hell, the dead cannot stay dead, and Goneril rose silently and brutally stabbed Lady Macbeth in the back. The endless cycle of murder and resurrection was chilling, and the audience left them to their fate.
In the final circle of Hell, Dante condemns those who commit the ultimate sin of treachery, by entombing them in ice. As we reached the final circle, Brutus (Melissa Barrett) and Iago (Emily Carding) lay in distorted positions shrouded in white gauze, the epitome of depression and despair. Although they portrayed grief, regret and anguish, their abject hopelessness set them apart from the other Shakespearean sinners, and we were guided out of Hell and back to the entrance by Ariel somewhat exhausted by the array of emotion we had witnessed.
I spoke to Kolbrun Sigfusdottir the director, who created the piece in collaboration with Emily Carding and Dana Bowman. The company is planning to tour with the production in January, and is hoping to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this year.
by Helen Carrington