Andy Arnold’s new adaptation of the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy takes a one-hour promenade through the hell beneath Glasgow’s Central station. The 14th-century classic updates seamlessly to modern times. You can’t help but wonder at how little human sin has changed in 700 years.
The Arches’ hellmouth is no athletic vision, with nimble demons continually prodding bodies in the flames. This is hell as unremitting claustrophobia, bodies trapped in rock and ice, marooned dreamers with leaden feet, intertwined in a seething mass of unresolved sin. As the audience is bottle-necked into a corridor lined with pestilent bodies repetitively rasping, “You’ll get stuck here”, one has the disturbing impression of being trapped with one’s very own lost soul.
Arnold creates an atmosphere of alternate reality that makes even the frequent emergency exit signs seem a strange mirror of a world that’s been left behind, as well as a reminder that Dante is, at this mid-point in his life, being shown the emergency exit to Salvation. But while the Arches itself is the perfect location, there is something a little too restrained in some of these tableaux, something a little too tour-guide in the whirlwind promenade structure, rarely pushing too hard against the psychological boundaries of audience safety. Each level is a little too visually homogeneous, populated by impressive cohorts of hapless, groaning bodies from the Royal Scottish Academy of Dramatic Arts, oddly like some bizarre vision of the gruelling rounds of auditions beyond graduation.
Of course condensing and adapting Dante’s epic verse into an hour’s theatre is no small feat. Arnold’s adaptation, which intersperses verse by diverse poets, sculpturally retains its literary merit and crucially its sense of poetry, hauntingly read by Kay Gallie.
Even if the depth is sometimes lost this is no Dante-lite. There are some deeply affecting and often humorous moments in this vast venture marking the 15th anniversary of the Arches. And the final exit into a video projection of two very modern children talking about their religious vision of hell immediately adds a very sobering gloss to Arnold’s fantastical vision.