It’s as Hot as… Hell, really- Dante’s Inferno Review

Last weeks immersive theatre outing took me back to the scene of ‘The Rue Morgue’ – the spacious, rustic, and stiflingly hot Bussey Building in Peckham for ‘The Inferno.” We picked a good week to go as for the first time in probably 700 years, it’s hot as…well, hell in London. “The Inferno” is directed by Roderick D. Morgan, and is based on Dante’s divine comedy. It is described as:

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ are the infamous words carved into the entrance of Dante Alighieri’s vision of eternal damnation. In presenting a dark journey through the complex world of catholic dogma, Dante tries to elucidate the very nature of humanity. To meet the feverish appetite London has for new and innovative experiences the Velvet Loop have devised an immersive promenade show based on this epic poem. Tracing a similar line to companies such as ‘Punchdrunk’ and ‘You me Bum Bum Train’ we explore both the themes of the original text and what relevance, if any, Dante’s idea of hell has today. Using live action, multimedia and incorporating the full spectrum of senses this unique performance focuses on everyday people rather than the individuals and stories of the original. Centring around the decisions we all make day to day that may send us down into eternal damnation. The audience will be guided by our narrator, Virgil, through the nine acts that represent the
nine levels as he twistingly tells his own troubled story. This event is taking place at the CLF art cafe over two floors of the  building and will have the audience submerged in our hell when they take their first step through the door.”

(First mistake- don’t compare yourselves to Punchdrunk. Just. Don’t. Don’t set yourselves up for that unnecessary comparison. Anyhow.)

It takes place over two floors (led by a tour guide) and manages to set a convincing locale for all of the sins presented with minimal props and set dressings. You are led from one sin to the next, with a modern day portrayal of how each sin plays out at each ‘station.’

The problem that all theatre productions have when they clearly divide things into specific and somewhat separate pieces is that they always run the risk that when you divide something into separate chunks, you tend to analyse things individually rather than as a whole. With The Inferno this was unfortunately the case- with 9 individual scenes linked by our guide (Virgil; rather interestingly played by Inferno writer Chris Leaney) it was clear to see where the strengths and weaknesses lay in this production.

There were some excellent scenes – Josh Davis’s portrayal of ‘anger’ as an embittered ex-worker was excellent. His rage was believable and he moved fluidly and confidently to fill a space well. You got the idea that you entered into a territory that was completely and utterly his; you were but a visitor in his hell. I enjoyed the ‘greed’ scene; shoved into a tiny space watching two men wrangle over a soul was clever but stifling hot (at this point someone in the showing had to step out, having been overcome by the heat.)

The heat did unfortunately overwhelm the production. There was a sign on the door requesting patrons bring in a bottle of water (fortunately on sale in the building) but we’d have been better advised to take off all of our clothes and bring buckets of ice water to frequently dump on our heads. At one scene I remember being delirious with joy at seeing a fan in the room- but, what fresh hell is this?! It wasn’t on. I couldn’t tell if this was half-deliberate, to add to the sensation of being in hell, but it made me lethargic, and I don’t feel I got the best out of some of the scenes- in particular the bathroom scene, which was energetic, interesting, and tense, but I was concentrating mainly on the fact that I found a cold pipe I could lean up against. (I was later told I had also been leaning up against/into a urinal. Ew.) At one point I clocked a member of our group frantically fanning herself with an Oyster card- it probably didn’t provide much relief, but desperate times, desperate measures and all that and I spent most of that scene wondering if I could discretely get out my Oyster card or would we end up looking like some sort of odd Oyster-card-loving cult.

The play was certainly an interesting take on modernising and interpreting a vision from 700 years ago- but could have been stronger. Most of the sins are still relevant in modern times, but a different take was offered for ‘gluttony’ (modern vapid celebrity) and ‘heresy.’ ‘Gluttony’ was overdone and far too long, but ‘heresy’ had an interesting premise- arguing that heresy was no longer a sin in modern times. The list of offences (arse-bandit in particular) really made me giggle, but sadly the argument wasn’t as convincing as it could be, and while Tara Postma was well-spoken and appealing, I could barely hear Nicholas Gauci owing to another overlapping scene nearby.

The ending was well done, and there was something genuinely agonising in getting a window into our tour guide’s hell. There is no one in the world who can’t relate to the agony of playing something heartbreaking over in your mind and willing yourself to do anything but what you actually did, and this is handled well.

I wasn’t completely sold on the performance, but it did have some bright sparks. It was far too long – rather confusingly so, as it was billed as being 45 minutes but I’m quite sure we didn’t get out of there before 10:30- having been to the 8:30 showing. Once it was over and we all made a run for the cool summer air, I heard a definite collective sigh of relief that we were outside. It was probably the reaction writers Leaney and Smith had hoped for upon us leaving hell- but hard to tell how much of that was from being in a cesspool of sin rather than from the 30 degree temperatures.

2 1/2 stars.

The Inferno runs until the 27th July and tickets are available here

PS – One other thing I will say about the production is that it was very well run- the group I went with had one night that all 6 of us could make it, and unfortunately it was the only night in the show’s run that didn’t have 6 spaces in one showing. We booked 3 at one time slot, and 3 in another and within an hour of booking I was sent an e-mail saying that if we’d all like to see it together they’d put on an extra showing at 8:30 for us. Excellent customer service.

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