Dante’s Divine Comedy – Barons Court Theatre, London

Adapted and directed: Douglas Baker
Movement director: Matt Coulton
Reviewer: David Guest

A fast-paced and contemporary take on one of the world’s greatest literary works gives audiences a fiery and thought-provoking ride to Hell and back.

Waiting on the narrow stairs down from the Curtains Up pub to the Barons Court Theatre on a muggy evening tests comfort levels before the door to the venue even opens, but the So It Goes Theatre Company production of Dante’s Divine Comedy (returning to the theatre for a longer spell after a successful short run earlier this year) provides an experience that is both claustrophobic and mesmerising.

The young cast more than gets the measure of Dante’s epic 14th Century poem thanks to Douglas Baker’s careful and classy adaptation and direction, resulting in a 90-minute drama which strips away much that is heavy without ever losing the essence of the piece.

Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise never once jettisons the allegorical idea of the soul’s passage to God, but with the distinctly modern mood – helped considerably by simple but often unsettling video imagery by Baker and Matt Kirke and clever lighting – the production also dares to challenge aspects of modern life, thinking, and morality.

Props and settings are uncomplicated, yet everything is deployed to full and powerful effect. Even Matt Coulton’s movement direction transports the audience from the unrelenting torment of Purgatory to the divine peace and love of Paradise.

Alex Chard’s Dante has a boyish charm, yet is every inch a young man assailed by the mysteries and horrors of life, an eager traveller uncertain of the ultimate destination, even when on the brink of suicide. His poet is very much a common man, a student of existence, the sacred, the wicked and the profane and even when his companion dismisses his trek as a work of theatre he persists on his quest.

Jack Blackburn has a commanding presence as Dante’s initial rescuer and guide Virgil, while a formidable Kathryn Taylor-Gears makes her Beatrice an ice maiden ever beyond Dante’s clutches. The other cast members – Sofia Greenacre, Marialuisa Ferro, Sophia Speakman and Michaela Mackenzie – do exceptionally well as they provide the chorus in addition to every other character in the play.

This Divine Comedy manages at once to be other-worldly, down to earth and often funny. It provides a multi-layered experience that is every bit as provocative as Dante’s massive written masterpiece. There is also plenty of creativity, such as with the inventive use of the London Underground and football hooligans.

This is one of those visionary and exciting productions that proves the worth of pub theatre, displaying this sort of venue at its very best. It would be a deadly sin indeed to miss it.

Runs until: 30 September 2017 | Image: Contributed

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