Writer: Kolbrun Bjort Sigfusdottir and Emily Carding
Director: Kolbrun Bjort Sigfusdottir
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
What happens to some of Shakespeare’s most villainous characters at the end of the play? Having got their comeuppance and often their deaths, where do they go – to hell perhaps? This new play by Kolbrun Bjort Sigfusdottir and Emily Carding reimagines a tour through Dante’s nine circles of hell, matching a range of Shakespeare’s creations with the sins of faithlessness, lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, heresy, violence, fraud and treachery.
One of the most interesting things about this production is that the selection of baddies is not the most obvious; no Claudius, Hamlet’s murderous uncle, no Macbeth just his wife, and no Edmund the orchestrator of many a downfall in King Lear. Instead there are a number of sinners who may surprise you not least the classic tragic heroines Juliet and Ophelia both here cast into hell by their choice of suicide. Henry V arguably Shakespeare’s greatest warrior King is condemned for the violence he caused and forced to endure eternity with Richard III. This clever categorisation forces you to look again at these characters and the varying types of sin they are aligned with.
Showing as part of the London Horror Festival this show is suitable grotesque, creepy and very weird. The original play text and new dialogue is nicely combined, although not all the character pairings work as well as they might. Among the best is a brutal fight between Lady Macbeth, played with evil relish by Melissa Barrett, and Emily Carding’s feisty Goneril, and the final scene with the same actresses playing Iago and Brutus debating the nature of treachery.
Although rarely mentioned, the make-up here is very impressive, lots of white faces, scars and trickles of blood which add to the idea of souls in torment. The director has planned well so each pairing is arranged in a variety of positions around the stage. Particularly impressive is the enormous silky red sheet that Henry V and Richard III stand in, conveying the river of blood they have shed. Oddly, the audience is also issued with individual torches allowing you to control spotlighting the actors around the stage and creating a variety of shadows.
The show is performed by just four actresses, and given the recent praise for the Donmar’s all-female Henry IV, this could be very timely for them. They play eighteen separate people which in a little more than an hour is no easy task. Occasionally the dialogue is muffled by shouts and screams which are too big for such a tiny venue, so it would be useful to tone some of this down as much for variety as audibility. Not the fault of the production but the atmosphere was spoiled by the overloud music from the pub below and is something for the venue to bear in mind for future productions.
It is a strange piece and it is not always entirely clear what is going on, but it has clearly been put together with considerable care and a real enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s characters. Part of the fun is trying to guess which ones are speaking without looking at the programme, and a couple of the more obscure may well elude all but the most devoted fans, but it will get you thinking about the definition of the sins played out and how the most heroic of characters are certainly guilty of something.
Runs Until: 18 October 2014