Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Music & Theatre
6 December 2018

The night that changed my life: Eimear McBride on Romeo Castellucci’s take on the Divine Comedy

I was finishing the first draft of my second novel and hoping to see something that might improve the mess on the page. 

By Eimear McBride

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.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special