In the summer of 2008 I visited the Avignon Festival to see the Italian director Romeo Castellucci’s epic interpretation of The Divine Comedy, Inferno. I was finishing the first draft of my second novel and hoping to see something that might improve the mess on the page.
Inferno was staged in the gigantic open-air Popes’ Palace and opened with an actor, in the guise of a loincloth-wearing demon, free climbing the inside of the immense back wall and disappearing through one of the gothic windows. After that Castellucci walked onstage in a bite-suit, announced his name and was set upon by a pack of Rottweilers. None of Dante’s text was present, but the show was the anarchic, allusive embodiment of mankind’s inescapable loneliness, and did far more justice to the poet’s intent than any earnest abridgement could have done.
The following night’s Purgatorio, featuring the relationship between a small boy and his sexually abusive father, provoked a Rite of Spring-esque response in the audience. Outraged punters screamed abuse at the stage and stormed out, while others applauded and appealed for calm. For me it was revelatory; difficult to watch and painful, but also tender and far more honest about the deeply complex relationships that can exist between abusers and their victims than is often comfortable for the outside world to accept.
Paradiso the following day, after a long wait in the blazing sun, was a short peer through an aperture into a sparsely staged installation. After the high drama of the previous episodes, this empty, medieval space with its billowing curtain and rolls of Radiohead-like drums over the top struck precisely the right note of isolation and ambiguity to wind the trilogy up.
Really, it was my first experience of theatre of the body as well as the mind, where spectacle did the talking and actors just did the illustration. After seeing it I understood that verbatim fidelity and artistic fidelity were not the same and which side, if I ever got the choice, I’d favour.
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special