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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’enfer est pavé des meilleures inventions

by Jean-Pierre Léonardini

Castellucci’s "Inferno" in Avignon: The Road to Hell is Paved with the Best Inventions

Avignon’s 62nd Festival: The first part of the trilogy inspired by Dante’s "Divina Commedia", masterfully orchestrated by Romeo Castellucci, is a deeply moving achievement owing to the bold imaginary forms the artist brings into play.

Translated Friday 25 July 2008, by Isabelle Métral

He had promised as much and he has kept his word: Romeo Castellucci’s show is no illustration of Dante Allighieri’s masterpiece [1]. He makes it his own, truly incorporates it, as "Inferno", the first part, shows. The Avignon premiere took place last Sunday night [July 5, Translator’s note] in the great court of the palace of the Popes built by Pope Clement V, a fellow contemporary of the poet to whom the Italian language owes so much of its fertility and suppleness [2].

Avignon (Vaucluse) from our special correspondent

Inferno, by contrast, unfolds almost wordlessly. But it is by no means a silent performance, for music and sounds (skilfully processed) hold the stage from first to last. The opening scene fills the audience with awe. Castellucci walks downstage, pronounces his name, dons thick quilted overalls. Three ferocious dogs attack him while others on chains bark furiously.

And it all becomes plain: the artist takes on everything himself, and with no coverage, uninsured, exposes himself to the bites, seeking the sin in himself alone (the sin or misdeed, and precisely what misdeed is unknown) on behalf of all human beings. Hell, here, is not “other people”, but one who multiplies into a crowd as the audience again later on will see, being confronted with a real concentrate of mankind on the march, with creatures collapsing one after another – breathtaking, instant summaries of whole lives, the brevity of which may besides appear in sudden flashes of recognition as reclining bodes slide with a hiss about the stage.

It is just impossible, so soon after the event, and in so short a space, to give the full list of the specific tableaux born of Castellucci’s unparalleled hypnotic imagination. But a few landmarks may give some idea, short of providing an adequate transcription (for which I must beg the reader’s indulgence). The two thousand spectators hold their breath when a solo climber scrambles up the Cyclopean front of the palace. Having reached the top he throws down a ball; a child catches it, and every time the child bounces it on the ground an awful din can be heard. Castelluci endlessly works on the notion of catastrophe. His only exegete should be Virilio, who has probed deeply into the subject. [3]

Dante-Castelluci cast in one block has no need of Vergil for a guide or rather, strangely enough, he would seem to delegate the part to Andy Warhol, lavishly quoted through the projection of the titles of most of his works, as creatures endlessly hurl themselves backwards into the void one after another with arms outstretched. At long last Warhol himself, in the guise of a wig-bearing double, hauls himself out of one of those crushed cars that fascinated him so much and begins one of those horizontal, manic-depressive dances while his Polaroid camera turns clockwise.

Is Warhol then supposed to be our Vergil through the age of the void? Why not? It’s a fantastic intuition. Adultery, infanticide, parricide, love itself (in as much as it is potentially murderous) are summoned in the collective mode, and displayed in a succession of slow, excruciatingly precise gestures. And the crowds thus brought together never look like docile troops of extras: they simply and beautifully evoke humankind itself.

The same idea imposes itself again when an immense white sail carried at arm’s length by all of us in turn covers successive sections of the assembled spectators. We can’t help feeling that we are being wrapped for an instant in one of Christo’s veils… A white horse that looks as though it had stamped wildly out of a dream, eventually draws a circle with its hoofs repeatedly, the ideal figure for a psychopomp that leads souls into the afterlife.

The dense precipitate of the most vivid allegorical pictures created by Castellucci will never cease haunting us obsessively and inescapably. So it was with his earlier production of Julius Caesar after Shakespeare’s play, and the still vivid memory of the speech on power uttered by a voice mutilated by tracheotomy; or after his version of Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, which was like a dissection of Céline’s brain at the time he wrote the novel, or again the deeply moving vignette Castellucci once devised, where children in the guise of white rabbits were carried away on a toy train even as they played.


[1] 1265-1321

[2] On July 7, 8, 10, 11, and 12 in the "cour d’honneur" at 10 pm.

[3] Paul Virilio (1932-), French town-planner and essayist. In L’Université de la catastrophe, his latest published book (The University of Catastrophe, 2007), he warns that a multiple catastrophe is drawing near, namely the convergent explosion of the climate bomb, the atomic bomb, the demographic bomb and the financial bomb.

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