With their promenade production of ‘Shakespeare in Hell,’ Brite Theatre in association with So Potent Arts have proved themselves to be the theatrical equivalent of DJ Danger Mouse, mashing up the work of two cultural icons to produce an inventive and surprisingly succinct piece of entertainment.
‘Shakespeare in Hell,’ blends together the most infamous and bloody of Dante and Shakespeare creations, taking the audience on a quickfire tour through the nine circles of hell, aka the underground pits of a former Bristol police station, to meet some of literary histories most interesting and despicable characters.
Whilst ‘Dante’s Inferno,’ began with Dante being lead into the underworld by the Roman Poet Virgil, ‘Shakespeare In Hell’ commences with Ariel, the winged mischievous spirit from The Tempest, guiding the audience. Every lines drips from her with a smirk and a shrug, no more so at the beginning when she light-heartedly informs the tour party to ‘abandon all hope, you who enter here,’ before beckoning them to follow through the aforementioned murky caverns of the police station. The audience have been armed with torches covered in coloured tape, a simple but effective trick to add mood lighting to the slew of infamous tormented creatures we encounter, anti heroes who have been coupled together in whatever circle of hell befit their crime.
The first circle is limbo, home to Ophelia (Melissa Barrett) and Juliet (Bryony Reynolds), who lament their shared suicidal despair with ghoulishly painted faces and bloody rags, and although the actors speak lines from the characters relevant plays the unsettling context gives new meaning to their prose. For example, as Juliet faces her tormented afterlife using words previously mooned over by girls at GCSE (by girls I mean me,) the once heartfelt text now turns into disturbing questions and mournful regret.
Over the course of the play the overlapping Venn diagram of the characters follies forces different Shakespearean characters into delightfully sparky battles of wills, sprouting speeches in this altogether altered context as they squabble, and sometimes kill, each other in a never ending circle of death and rebirth. A particular highlight is the pairing of Lady Macbeth (Melissa Barrett) and Goneril from King Lear (Emily Carding), who we peer at from the top of a long dark corridor as Lady Macbeth teases Goneril for her denial of her true selfish nature. The final resolve is a like for like spout of bloody killing, and it was a delight to be a voyeur in such unusual circumstances.
There were numerous other highlights; sitting at a dinner table with Titus Andronicus (Emily Carding) in the circle of greed as he fumed at the boisterous Falstaff (Kris Wing Jennings) for his joviality. The dramatic gloom of Leontes (from ‘A Winters Tale’) sharing his palatable raw grief with Volumnia, (Coriolanus mother) over their role in the death of their children, and an injection of well timed humour as the arrogant Richard 3 and valiant Henry V bicker over war and try and drown each other in the river of Styx.
The eighteen characters we met during show were all played by four female actors, maybe an inversion of ye olde theatre tradition of men playing women, and their malleable talents meant each of their new characters was distinctive from the last. Melissa Barrett jumped seamlessly from a seductive Lady Macbeth to a cackling Macbethian (made up word, poetic licence etc) witch as she tormented the righteous Shylock, and Bryony Reynolds played both a young forlorn Juliet and an old distraught Leontes with wise old soul conviction.
We stayed long enough with each character to realise their folly, downfalls and the particular hell they were in was of their own doing. In the ninth circle, where the betrayers abide, we come across the unrepentant Iago (Emily carding) sitting in a prison cell, monologuing never to reveal why he betrayed Othello. In the corridor we heard the sounds of Brutus and Cassius, who were indeed dammed to hell in Dante’s original text, committing treachery most foul and we leave with the sense that both Shakespeare and Dante were adept at depicting humanities worst fallibilities through the most beautiful of language.
But let me be honest with you. I am biased in some ways as I love Dante’s Inferno, and I love Shakespeare. I am aware this makes me sound like an intellectual try hard but in my defence I don’t understand about 80% of the words being said. At least not without my York Notes. However this doesn’t stop me being taken in by the fictive dream those words create, the hypnotic rhythm of the prose as it bounces along depicting the tragic flaws of vain and stupid humans. The power of ‘Shakespeare in Hell’ is that having full and complex knowledge of the plays or the prose itself does not necessarily put you at an advantage, as the whole show is a new education in Shakespeare in itself. A dummy’s guide to the most conflicted of the Shakespearean characters, but from a different perspective, a Dante perception. Afterwards you cannot help but want to throw yourself into the complete works of Shakespeare, to learn more about the intriguing characters you had a brief meeting with, to explore the hidden gems amongst the greatest hits.
I hope this show continues to tour, run and inspire, and hopefully appear at this years Edinburgh fringe festival, where the suitable creepy underground vaults of the city would prove the perfect backdrop for this piece of high octane cultural horror.