First two parts of a trilogy by the (allegedly) famous and revered Italian director/installation artist/impresario, Romeo Castellucci, loosely (very loosely) derived from Dante's Divine Comedy. We have Purgatorio still to come. Alas.
Paradiso a walk-through installation in the Barbican's "Silk Street Theatre", in reality the main performance space in the Guildhall School next door. When configured as a conventional theatre it fills the gap between the Barbican's main 1,000-plus seater theatre and the Pit, which only holds a few hundred. It's been brought into commission for the SPILL festival of performance and for BITE. We are going to see Andromaque there later this month.
For Paradiso it was filled with a huge white box, entered at one corner. Inside, an ante-room, then a short cylindrical tunnel, then a big dark space. In front of you, as your eyes adjust to the darkness, you become aware of a naked man, apparently buried to the waist near the top of the wall and struggling silently to escape. Water cascades noisily to the floor below him. And that was it. Not very paradisaical, really. As we left we were handed a sheet with a pretentious interpretation and review by some Italian critic. I thought the whole thing nonsense. D's view: "Bollocks!"
It didn't help that we'd had to wait, and it wasn't worth it. We had timed tickets for 19.00, and turned up at 18.50, but didn't get in until 19.30 (worrying about getting out in time for Inferno, which started at 19.45). The installation could hold only a few at a time and someone had evidently miscalculated how long people would want to remain (baffling that they should want to remain, but there we are). The front of house woman told me they'd also had someone in a wheelchair, though how a wheelchair-user coped with the cylindrical tunnel (which you had to step up to enter) god alone knows.
Inferno a very different and altogether more formidable proposition. 1hr 10 mins in the main theatre, hugely ambitious and intermittently spectacular.
I knew broadly what to expect because I'd seen some of it on You Tube (where it says of Castellucci: "He himself says that he creates meaningless theatre which has an immediate impact on the spectator").
Individual bits are breathtaking, especially some of the early sections, but "meaningless" is the word (it certainly bears precious little relation to Dante, to judge from the reading of Inferno which I undertook, 30 years too late, as perhaps over-zealous preparation).
The critics were clearly puzzled:
And Castellucci has form. This is from the Observer in 2004:
"In 1999 he divided critics with his extraordinary Cesare, featuring an emaciated Caesar, an obese Cicero and a laryngotomised Mark Antony. In 2001's Genesi he matched a contortionist Adam with a middle-aged, mastectomised Eve.
Castellucci favours disabled or different-looking actors in his performances. His children and other members of his family often find they're written in too. Then there are the animals. A horse turned up in Cesare, and mongrel dogs scooted around in Genesi. (Castellucci's biggest failure to date on this score seems to have been with a cow, which objected strongly when he tried to milk it on stage.)
Targets? The tyranny of the text, naturellement . 'On its own,' he claims, 'text is pure inertia.' The answer is not to write better text but to abandon it in favour of sound, music, randomised and not-so-randomised animatronic and animal interventions and sumptuous, sensuous, visuals."
So what did we get on this occasion?
Castellucci himself is savaged by guard dogs at the start. He dons a special protective suit. They are evidently trained to bite clothing since they leave his exposed hands and face alone. There are three: they run on from the wings and are called off by a whistle. They're watched by half a dozen others, led on by burly handlers and left chained at the front of the stage. My memory is that the the six remained silent while the three attacked; D remembers them as quite agitated.
So that's a startling opening. And then a large black-draped cube is wheeled on and the drapes lifted off to reveal a bunch of toddlers inside, playing with toys. One little boy discovers that if he jumps up he makes a noisy metallic clatter when he lands; another little boy follows suit, a little girl half-heartedly tries it. Another little girl just sits. You worry if they're alright, by themselves. D reckons the oversized teddy bear sitting in one corner was actually an adult, on hand for emergencies. The inside of the (perspex) cube is brightly lit and amplified. As the kids play a vast black sheet billows above them. And then the drapes are replaced and the cube wheeled off. And your point is...?
There's a large cast of professionals and locally-recruited volunteers, dressed in "bright pastels" Benetton-style, who much of the time move silently in a group on and off the stage. At one point they all lie down and roll very slowly towards the back, individuals getting up and walking off. But, perhaps significantly, my memory of the stage pictures becomes much more fragmentary. Is this deliberate? "These fragments I have shored against my ruin", an Eliot-like commentary on the collapse of traditional culture?
Here's a few fragments, in no particular order.
A skull, placed beneath the back wall which has been raised like a paper guillotine. As the weight of the wall bears down on it the skull shatters.
A white horse is led on and its hindquarters splashed with red paint.
There's an old man, and an old woman, and a little girl, and a teenage boy in long shorts who bounces a basketball: each bounce produces an ear-shattering, earth-shattering explosion. They seem to spend a lot of their time standing at the front of the stage, looking out at the audience.
A grand piano is wheeled on and set alight.
Andy Warhol appears and takes polaroid photos of the audience. He is presumably a Virgil-like guide. At the end a ruined car is brought on and he sits in it.
Um, that's it.