If you have a taste for gore or psychological trips, then Shakespeare in Hell is the show for you. The programme warns that this promenade performance is not appropriate for children. More to the point it’s not for the faint of heart. The premise of the script is: what would happen if Shakespeare’s various villains met their maker, and their compatriots in hell? Not just hell, but Dante Alighieri’s disturbingly intricate, organized hell. There are nine categories: limbo, lust, gluttony ,greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery, and Shakespeare provided several scripts full of unfortunate, though generally not undeserving inhabitants of each section.
As previously mentioned, the show was constructed as a promenade sequence in the empty holding cells of The Island, an artistic venue that used to house the old police station. Needless to say the echoing, sterile corridors and dimly lit cells conjured, a little too literally, the cramped ambiance of an uncomfortable afterlife. Whenever I imagine Dante’s hell, I envision vaulted dark ceilings, bottomless pits of fire and endless, winding corridors. In short, it’s scary, but there’s space to swing a cat. Upon entering the dungeons, my senses were assaulted by the slight smell of mildew, grey-white walls and garish lighting. The corridor was cramped and the audience was shepherded around like lambs to… well you get the picture. It was not at all how I envisioned hell to be, which is of course, the point.
Over the course of 5 weeks the all-female cast had carefully crafted a series of encounters between various villainous or at least objectionable characters. Goneril offered Lady Macbeth some soap and got her eyes clawed out. Titus Andronicus invited us to sit at his table, or was it Macbeth….. Hamlet had an argument with Juliet, Prospero begged Ariel not to kill him. Iago and Julius Cesar had a row, and Shylock was assaulted by the Weird Sisters, who promptly took their pound of flesh. I would like to clarify which pairs shared which scenes, but each performer embodied at least three different characters. The dialogue and soliloquies fit seamlessly together which speaks volumes for troop’s knowledge of the canon and even more for their innovative thinking. We were introduced to eighteen characters with hundreds of different motives and excuses, each more chilling than the last. What I had not counted on was the violence. From strangling, to head bashing, I asked, tentatively how much of it they had originally choreographed, apparently it escalated each night. It was like watching prison inmates picking each other off. The most disturbing moment was when King Lear’s command for Goneril to be rendered barren was taken literally; she doubled over as if suffering a miscarriage.
To be honest, the show is almost akin to an incredibly well constructed fan fiction. Yet it was not a stilted, pseudo-Shakespearean attempt at iambic pentameter, but rather a painstakingly researched, smoothly crafted re-imagining of what happens to those who think themselves above the judgment of their author or audience. It’s a cautionary tale set in a facility that already reeks of past punishments. Hell is murky, but you don’t want to miss out!
By Madeleine Golding