Friday, January 16, 2015

'Dante's Inferno: A Modern Telling' at the Rag Factory, 15th January 2015


What happens when Dante Alighieri meets Russell Brand? Dante's Inferno: A Modern Telling is what, and boy oh boy it's a tricky one to review. You see this, unlike so much of the mindless rubbish culture about, is important. Sincerely, honestly,  self-consciously significant.  

The programme describes the show as "For the people who search. For the people who question. For the people who struggle. For the 99%."  (Hey - that's me!) Later on we're told we're to "witness deep, open and emotional reservoirs.  Watching them may make you 'feel' in different ways". Awesome! 

After all, the main reason I head out to all this culture stuff is to experience new ideas, new emotions and new philosophies. So as I sat in the coolly tiled and wooden boarded 'sewing room' of the Rag Factory I was primed for good times. This optimistic spirit was buoyed by the vibrancy of the warm-up taking place in the performance space. Toned, athletic and charismatic, the five performers played out variations on hate and love, swooshing at each other with sticks and saying "Mah!" loudly. It's a thrill just to watch these them move, their dancers' physiques granting the ability to convey precise, complex emotion in pure body language.  

Then director Rocky Rodriguez Jr walks on stage and says "pause". They stop, the lights go out and the play proper begins. Boiled back to its bones, the production uses Dante's Inferno as the foundation on which to build an argument against the modern epidemics of social selfishness and corporate subjugation. Replacing this are pleas for empathy, conscience, and honesty.  All top stuff and difficult to disagree with. Problem is it's excruciatingly patronising and about as profound as a baked potato.

The action recasts Dante (Lucas John Mahoney) as a modern office worker beset from all sides by the travails of modernity. He's increasingly distant from his loving wife, pressured in the office, pumped full of bad vibes by his friend and tempted with bizarre sexual come-ons from his billionaire boss's daughter. Round and round these worries go, building in volume until one day he flips out and attacks a homeless girl. Tossed in jail he undergoes a dark night of the soul, travelling to hell where he meets personifications of everything ugly within him. With these exorcised, maybe he can become a better person.


His tale is told through a combination of naturalistic dialogue and dance. The performers tumble and leap around the space, arranging themselves into tableaux that signify changing environments, symbols and concepts. The sheer talent of these performers is never in doubt, they're committed to the point of shedding blood (I noticed a cut on Mahoney's foot in the final scenes). Every single moment is crammed with energy, so if nothing else you can watch it as a virtuoso display of physicality.

But then they stop moving and begin talking and... oh boy... I want to point out that right the way through this I was trying so hard to squash the burgeoning cynic inside me. I hate hate hate the kinds of sneering, reflexively sarcastic dimbos that instinctively mock sincerity and empathy. So the last thing I want to do is mock a play is broadly right-on about most of the topics it covers. 

Right-on it may be, but it's also insultingly simplistic and convinced of its own cleverness. Firstly, the tale of an immoral man being confronted by spirits that reveal to him the error of his ways and leave him newly optimistic and selfless isn't Dante's Inferno, it's A Christmas Carol. Secondly (and more importantly) the solutions it presents are the worst type of Millennial navel-gazing: the spiritual salvation it offers one of individual rather than communal emancipation: springing from the solipsistic idea that it's how you feel that's important.  

There's an unfocussed anger directed at "TTIP" and "fracking": phrases tossed out without explanation - we're just left to assume that they're bad. "Corporations" are demonised, but the play never even tries to explain what it's actual objections are to any individual corporations or their actions.  We're just expected to nod sagely and think "yup, corporations suck all right".  Worse, characters that represent the evils in the world are ridiculous caricatures that spout clunking, cringeworthy lines like "Do you want to rub your beard on my cunt?" The play concludes with an appeal to quit our jobs, be nicer to people and set out "to change the world" (exactly how to change the world is unfortunately not explained).

This is fluffy, feel-good bullshit and having it served to us as sage wisdom is infuriating. There are long portions of the show that reek of smug pomposity as if we should be grateful for these nuggets of wisdom. What's really here is a yawning ideological void populated by political playacting: the artistic equivalent of retweeting #SaveOurGirls, signing a petition on Change.org or leaving a pissy comment at the bottom of a news article - inconsequential actions that leave one with the fuzzy illusion of having done something.

That it's very broadly correct in its argument makes its failure that much more frustrating. If the obvious passion on stage was channelled into a specific cause, to a political rigorous argument or to a clearly stated ideology it could be a powerful piece of theatre. Without that the dippy New Age-isms work as a political placebo - telling us that that when you and enough people feel good about themselves the world will just kinda get better on its own. 

I can't deny the talent of these performers, but the text is painfully, embarrassingly na├»ve.

Dante's Inferno is at the Rag Factory until 1st February. Tickets here.

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