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negotiating a transposed hell

douglas leonard: zen zen zo, dante’s inferno


Andrea Jenkins, Dante’s Inferno, Zen Zen Zo Andrea Jenkins, Dante’s Inferno, Zen Zen Zo
photo Simon Wood
ZEN ZEN ZO HAS BUILT A REPUTATION BASED ON SELF-DEVISED CREATIVE PROJECTS AS WELL AS RADICALLY UPDATED WESTERN CLASSICS. AN ECLECTIC, TRANSDICIPLINARY APPROACH INCORPORATES EASTERN DISCIPLINES SUCH AS THE SUZUKI METHOD AND BUTOH, WITH ELEMENTS OF POP CULTURE THROWN IN FOR GOOD MEASURE. BOTH STRANDS ARE APPARENT IN THE PRODUCTION OF DANTE’S INFERNO FOR THE IN THE RAW STUDIO SEASON AT BRISBANE’S OLD MUSEUM. THIS IS A SHOWCASE FOR GRADUATE STUDENTS FOLLOWING THEIR SIX-MONTH INTERNSHIP PROGRAM AND FEATURED GUEST CANADIAN DIRECTOR STEPHEN ATKINS WHO ALSO LAUDABLY UNDERTOOK THE TRAINING.

The Neo-Gothic edifice of Brisbane’s Old Museum was an eminently suitable site for a production styling itself as living hell. Despite the dire warnings of gypsy fortune tellers, the milling crowd outside the museum was soon gathered up by our Tour Guides, a pair of bubbly air hostesses with a perfect grasp of airborne vernacular who escorted us with torches over uneven ground to Hell’s Gates. Here we were confronted by a charivari chorus of the damned, Hell’s buskers, a foretaste of torments in store. We passed promenade-wise through an arching tunnel in a hedge into Hell itself. First stop, Limbo: four actors in perpetual circular motion, stepping up and down and around on blocks representing an endless gym for the soul. And so on through a series of installations in the grounds depicting interpretations of Dante’s sins including the third (the gluttonous), fourth (the avaricious/spendthrifts) and fifth (the melancholic) which were sometimes obvious, sometimes merely enigmatic and sometimes deadly as in the Night of the Living Dead.

At this point in the first circle of Hell where Dante depicts the eternal lovers, Francesca and Paolo, damned because they would not abandon their human, fleshly love for the love of God, the company seems to have flinched from exploring Dante’s sympathetic and complex examination of a situation reflecting his adoration for his ideal love, Beatrice. Instead we are treated to a quartet of reanimated souls enacting a post-Brechtian, cabaret-style ballad about their sordid and murderous lust for gold. Quibble aside, so far it has been an entertaining stroll through the grounds of Hell until the atmosphere changes after the deaths of our ebullient guides. We are abandoned, lost and barred by demons from continuing our journey through the realms of the Middle and Lower Hells, yet the only way out is down.

Our guiding light appears in the form of a shining angel, a striking figure of sculptural serenity, who is surely Beatrice as she appeared to Dante. Entering the building, the massive enclosure of the performance space dictates a different response. We no longer have the freedom of bystanders, fair-goers, or separate observers and feel threatened by the sheer proximity and physicality of the performers and the darker nature of their sins, which feel intimately personal. We witness a violent orgy of rape and pillage until herded by these truly damned souls into witnessing our own capacity for violence, masochistic self-harm and despair culminating in the sin of suicide startlingly portrayed by an instantaneous descent of two chairs on the end of ropes. Our attention is refocused by two girls sweetly singing a plaintive lament as a coda and then to self-deception within a loveless relationship until the alienated pair rise from the breakfast table to act out their onanistic fantasies. The final scene is a mechanistic office version of the treadmill of work encapsulated in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. We are invited to our first day on the job as we leave through a maze of candle-lit corridors to the Exit which is No Exit.

Last year Zen Zen Zo’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest turned powerfully on an interpretation based on contemporary post-colonial discourses and as a result won the Matilda Award for Best Independent Production in 2009. The rather fragmented nature of their current showing lacked such an underlying concept—a big ask, I know, when the original is such a monumental work and such a strong product of the Western medieval mindset. In part, the site-specific use of the Old Museum aptly stood in for the towering architecture of Dante’s Catholic faith which was the foundation of his epic poem but by shearing away Dante’s basic beliefs, rendering them simply as metaphors for life, this treatment risked destabilising the whole structure. Perhaps the trouble lay in the way the performance text was constructed. According to Atkins each and every cast member was given a snippet of the poem and told to go away and creatively interpret it. The results were assembled and the final shape of the piece collectively decided upon. However, I suspect it would take a true, mad heretic of the stature of Neitzche’s Zarathustra to perform such a cut and paste. Nevertheless, Zen Zen Zo’s characteristic energy and the unflagging focus of the ensemble playing was impressive in covering such huge territory on such rough ground. Dale Hubbard’s music was impressive and subtly modulated, and like Beatrice in many guises it led us through the production. The technical team also dealt adroitly with big outdoor stuff.

The classics, of course, can ask the questions that are often shouldered aside in the brutal tempo of modern life. But if so, the questions and not necessarily just the answers need to be recast in order to be relevant. I found the final ‘Metropolis’ scene (which I know some felt to be anticlimatic) the most replete from this aspect, with its icy promise of an unending corporate eternity which will lead us all, ironically soon enough, into the fiery furnace of the fundamentalist imagination so that the world ends, as TS Eliot predicted, not with a bang but a whimper.


Dante’s Inferno, devised by Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre Company members and 2010 interns, dialogue Stephen Atkins, director Stephen Atkins, designer Alan John Jones, lighting designer Ben Hughes, composer Dale Hubbard, performers Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre Ensemble, Brisbane Old Museum, May 6-22

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 7

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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