Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso

Romeo Castellucci
Societas Raffaello Sanzio
Barbican Theatre and Silk Street Theatre
(2009)

Paradiso publicity image

Societas Raffaello Sanzio is an unusual company whose work is sometimes baffling but always intriguing. This bite09 presentation, which also forms part of this year's SPILL Festival of Performance, is no exception. It is pointless to go to Castelluci's work carrying expectations - though seeing a van load of German Shepherd Dogs arriving at the theatre did give a hint - you need to have an open mind and let them work their magic. I had no idea what one might get as Castelluci's response to Dante's Divine Comedy, for this is no literal adaptation - though since my knowledge of that great poetic work relies more on famous illustrations for it than an immersion in its text.

I started, in the wrong order perhaps, but that is the way the Barbican arranged it, with Paradiso, which turns out to be an installation set up in the auditorium of the Guildhall School's Silk Street Theatre which has been cleared of seats. You are allowed in in small groups as others leave the theatre so you will probably have to wait a few minutes past the time on your ticket.

The space is occupied by a ceiling-high white box with angled sides that contrasts with the black draped walls and the dim light in which you have been waiting. Ahead of you is a bright box of light and beside it - easily missed against the dazzle - the small entrance to the interior. Here a white-walled inner space gives access to a dark circular tunnel which you must bend to enter. It looks endless, though actually very short and leads into what seems an entirely dark space where you can hear the sound of water falling and splashing into a tank or pool. Contact with a few drops warns you away from a possible soaking. Is there another way out of this box? Does it lead anywhere? No, the walls seem continuous and you can dimly see that there is no space behind the falling water. Is this all there is? Is Paradise oblivion?

A noise, a grunt, a murmur draw the attention upwards and now eyes are adjusted to the darkness a dim figure is discernable high over the falling water struggling and failing to emerge through a hole overhead. When the movements seem to be repeating their cycle it is clear that nothing else is going to happen and, with a queue of people waiting to follow you, you return to the dazzle of white walls.

That's it. Make of it what you will. Perhaps it is the white walls that are Paradise. Perhaps we are not looking up but down and what we have seen is a man trying to escape from hell. Perhaps I simply lack the sensitivity to respond but frankly I didn't think it worth the effort that had gone into creating it and describe it in such detail so that, if you have to make a special journey to see it, you are warned that this is a brief experience that could disappoint.

It certainly disappointed me but, fortunately, I saw it just before going next door to the Barbican Theatre for Inferno.

Inferno is a very different experience, though requiring the same ability to give yourself over to what is being presented and make of it what you will. It opens with another very simple statement but a much more explicit one that greets the arriving audience. To the sound of an amplified electrical crackle they see a row of lit-up but flickering three dimensional letters, enclosed in quotation marks, across the black void of the smoke-clouded stage. They spell out INFERNO, but read from the stage. They are labelling us.

The letters are carried off (but not the quotes) and a man appears, identifying himself as Castellucci, and handlers bring on half a dozen German Shepherd Dogs, lining them across the front of the stage and facing Castellucci who is donning a padded suit. You know what's coming but the dogs are not released. A succession of other dogs run on from offstage and attack him, tails wagging - they enjoy it. Most of the other dogs are excitedly barking but some take no interest whatever. We watch, the houselights up. An image to suggest nature's tooth and claw perhaps? A bell rings and the dogs leave him and rush off stage and the watching dogs are lead away. This is all under human control, it is our savagery we see and, as if to emphasise this, a dog's hide is laid over Castellucci who is on all fours.

The house lights go out again and a black box glides onto the stage, a white skull placed beside it; its mirrored side reflects us. It lights up inside where a group of tots are playing on a pile of cushions: childhood and death together. A billowing black drape very slowly begins to descend from one side downstage. We begin to think of new interpretations.

A man who looks like Andy Warhol appears. He takes a Polaroid photograph of us. The children are hidden behind black covers and the box is gone, leaving the spot-lit skull, which before long is crushed under a dull mirror that occasionally is slightly raised to reveal the brightly-lit legs of those behind it while in front we see the figures on stage reflected 'through a glass darkly.'

After this a boy comes on bouncing a large ball in time to a resonating soundtrack, the first of a series of images that track a human life-time. I won't go on describing things, you have to experience their fascination, supported by a powerful multi-direction sound track of electronic sounds mixed with a capella plainsong that gives an emotional boost and concentrates attention.

This Hell is life on earth; not the 'hell is other people' of Sartre's Huis Clos but the pains and problems, the on-going difficulties of tortures of ordinary existence as each succeeding image finds an echo in our ongoing experience in life's journey. And those images are powerful ones: a skeleton crawling gradually across the stage, a sequence of people climbing on top of the black box and, back-lit, stretching their arms out sideways and slowly leaning backwards into the void behind, a crowd that fills the stage and a man or woman mimes slitting another's throat and then someone his or hers until the ground is covered with bodies except for one old man - the child returns bringing his ball and hugs his grandpa and then slits the old man's throat; the standing crowd moving very very slowly backwards into the wings as a white horse is brought on opposite them, then red liquid poured over the horse's back - is this a redeeming sacrifice, a symbol for a saviour?

Castellucci and his company, his composer Scott Gibbons, choreographer Cindy Van Acker and his animal trainers have created an amazing piece of theatre. As a final image in such a sequence his Paradiso might have proved more effective - but first comes Purgatorio, and of that I can tell you nothing for it comes next week.

Howard Loxton also reviewed "Purgatorio", the second part of the trilogy, a week later

Reviewer: Howard Loxton