By Tom Pymer
In undertaking an attempt to portray Hell, Wrong Tree Theatre have set themselves a major theatrical challenge. If the scenes I saw are anything to go by, it’s also due to be a major theatrical triumph.
Inferno is based on the medieval poem of the same name by Dante. The basic idea (without giving too much away) is this: Hell is divided into nine pits, each committed to a different sin. In Inferno, Dante (and now his worthy successors in Wrong Tree) give the audience a tour of these nine pits and reveal the different torture methods the Devil has in store for the sinful.
Patrick Palmer stars as the insane Devil, who takes Isabel McGradie’s sceptical Bella, a lawyer, into Hell, with the help of his five demon minions, portrayed with shuddering brilliance by Olivia Swain, Kyle Kirkpatrick, Aimee Dickinson, Harry Twining and Fionna Monk. The play is a comment on religious beliefs about Hell, modern society and a reflection of, in the words of director Henry Gould, “the worst parts of humanity”.
Palmer’s Devil is sadistic, but strangely relatable. Palmer said that the role “changed a lot” as the rehearsal process went on and “it came out of the script”. The thing he likes most about the part is that the Devil “really enjoys what he’s doing”. McGradie agreed, saying that her character isn’t exactly the opposite of the Devil, but has an “interesting relationship” with a character she finds horrifying, but captivating. She said that “developing the relationship” has been her favourite part of the rehearsal process and that Bella, like the Devil, has “changed a lot” since rehearsals started.
Of the demons, Kirkpatrick described their characterisation aim as a “complete loss of humanity” in every detail. Monk drew attention to the way that they’ve had to make sure that their movements and even their facial expressions are at all times “the opposite of human”. Twining added they aimed for “different paradigms” in the way they attempted to portray concepts such as lust, anger and greed. In all of these aims, they are stunningly successful. McGradie said that, on several occasions in the play, she is “genuinely terrified” of them, and it’s not hard to see why.
As with all of Wrong Tree’s performances, self-devised work and physical theatre are set to play a big part, with Swain saying that the “physicality” has been her favourite bit of the rehearsal process as Hell is created through the movements of the actors. Kirkpatrick and Monk said that it was great to see how the cast “consolidated” and “modelled our own ideas into the story”, which makes for some interesting and unexpected takes on ideas and situations we might assume ourselves familiar with. Background atmospheric music has been specially composed by Emily Winters (who said “for every scene, there are three pieces of music I cried over”).
Inferno is “a play with a message” in the words of assistant producer Astrud Turner. Gould described this message as “pertinent” and said he hoped that the audience would see themes “reflected in themselves”. Twining made the point that the audience are “not that different” from the characters, neither the demons nor the people in Hell. With twists of psychology, any audience will go away questioning themselves and questioning their ideas of morality.
One thing that is extremely obvious is how much both cast and production team have enjoyed the process; their enthusiasm makes this obvious. Gould described the cast as “amazing” and said that the show is looking to be “better than anything I thought I’d see when I arrived at Durham.” Dickinson added that she really enjoyed “stepping into the cast” and that the relationship with the production team has been “incredible”.
If I had to summarise what little I saw in a single word, I would say captivating. If you have the chance to see Inferno, see it. You will not be disappointed.
Catch ‘Inferno’ at the Assembly Rooms Theatre at 19:30 between Thursday 1st February and Saturday 3rd of February.
Trigger warning: Inferno contains themes of sexual violence, torture and suicide.
Photograph: Naomi Young