The Rag Factory in E1 is currently home to Craft Theatre’s modern retelling of Dante’s Inferno. Five actors tell the story of Dante’s descent into a living hell – he has problems with his marriage and is stuck in a job he hates, but he tackles them by engaging in an affair in which he is bullied, whilst spiralling into bitterness towards everyone and everything. Later, Dante descends into a religious version of hell, where he has to learn some hard truths about himself.
Craft Theatre’s production is physical, sweaty and bold. The actors give everything they have to the performances, and lead actor Lucas John Mahoney successfully and impressively conveys vulnerability as a modern day Dante. If you like your theatre raw and brutal, Dante’s Inferno will certainly appeal. However, if you prefer nuance, this may not be the show to see.
The improvisational conversational scenes leaves the actors exposed to weak dialogue, and it’s hard to engage in the drama when the actors are shouting from the first moments, leaving themselves nowhere else to go other than to shout for the duration. Used economically, shouting can be very effective, but over-use can leave the audience zoning out. There’s also the perennial issue in the Rag Factory of sight lines. Wherever you sit, pillars will ensure you miss some of the action.
The overall impression of Dante’s Inferno is that it’s like an extended drama school improvisation exercise, which is often a lot of fun and illuminating for those involved but less engaging for an audience. This view is perhaps reinforced by the warm-up of the actors before the show begins – a deliberate dismantling of the fourth wall that requires something else to go in its place for the benefit of the audience. It has to be said that once Dante descends into the hell as imagined by theologians, the production really picks up and comes into its own, and the brashness and physicality of the piece starts to become effective, and even enticing.
The story derived from the original poem paints with broad brush strokes that mirrors the performance style. There’s not much to disagree with in the sentiments of the piece – Tory policies show little or no social conscience, and the very wealthy often have a disregard for the poor – but it becomes no more subtle than that. To be fair, the piece isn’t looking for subtlety, and the resolution is actually (and deliberately) funny.
Overall we’d say there’s a definite niche for an audience that will relish the physical and bombastic nature of this show, but it’s certainly an acquired taste.