Review – Romeo Castellucci’s Inferno and Paradiso – Barbican (Spill Festival) – and Alain de Botton “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”


Tonight J and I went to the Barbican to see Romeo Castelluci’s Inferno and, earlier in the day, his Paradiso. (Sadly I won’t be seeing Purgatorio, as I’ll be out of town the days it’s being performed.) I’m really into performance art, and I was excited after reading an article in the Guardian about it (which I’ll link to when I can find it). It sounded deliciously experimental, multi-media as all get-out, and full of really rich imagery.

Well … it is loud, and there is neon, and there are dogs, small children, and a horse on stage, not to mention a burning piano. So there are certainly lots of rich images, such as said children in a mirrored box that starts out looking like the Qa’aba (covered in black cloth), being observed by Andy Warhol. And there is a final image of a black sun slowly rising over a black wall, in a lovely sort of vision of the end of the world. But … so much of it seemed like sound and fury. Yes, Castellucci is attacked by dogs, and then goes to don a German shepherd’s skin (which later forms part of the costume of a sort of suburban American Mononoke), and a skull is crushed by a giant wall, and about forty people mime cutting each other’s throats until only one is left alive (in a scene worthy of Thomas Middleton), so there is really a LOT to look at, but nothing to care about.

But unfortunately, other than seeing this as some kind of freakish homage to Andy Warhol, I just wasn’t able to be amazed by this work despite the tremendous effort put into creating it. Yes, the three people crouching beside a dead body looked like the soldiers sleeping while Christ rolls aside the rock, but that’s just not enough for me. I didn’t see any real emotion in all of this. I mean, gosh, in the end, I wondered if my initial thought, the one I had when the curtains of the black cube were drawn away and the lights in the house were raised (so that what we saw reflected in the cube was us, the audience), was correct – that hell is being stuck in a theater with 1500 other people who aren’t really having a good time, in which case I suppose Inferno was a far cleverer show than I thought it to be.

Our conclusion was that chopping about 15 more minutes off of it (it was only about an hour and twenty minutes) would probably get the snappiness right up there and make this a much better production, but … I just don’t think that’s really likely. Still, it seems likely to be a cultural touchstone of sorts, and I expect I’ll be seeing pictures of it for years to come. (Pictures here from The Guardian – you can see how it caught my eye. Another review available at the Teenage Theatre Critis‘s blog.)

Paradiso was actually cool as shit, another cube but this time about three stories tall and gleaming white, with a tiny entrance. We had to go through a black circle into a darkened and extremely humid room beyond – which was really making me think about all of that “going into the tunnel” stuff you hear about near death experiences, but also is very reminiscent of birth imagery – where, when my eyes adjusted, I could see a pale little body two-thirds of the way up the wall, about half way out and sort of fighting as if he wanted to make it through. Water was coming out of the hole, running down the wall, and splashing on the floor. Every now and then the guy would make little agonized noises, making me think of Sisyphus or Tantalus, suffering away for a lifetime of sins.

It was difficult for me to see this as Paradise (despite the extensive notes we received upon our exit), but it was a fantastic, intense, visceral experience that brought to mind Bruce Nauman or James Turrell. Sadly, after waiting 15 minutes for our turn to be let into the room, we only spent about five minutes there – nothing was really going to happen, we had “got it,” and my partner was suffering some pretty severe neck agony due to an earlier accident that made me think we should get him back home if there was any chance of making it back for Inferno that night.

Oddly the big winner of the evening for me was Alain de Botton, who gave a talk at the National Theatre focusing on his new work, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Now, I am not a good person to write neutrally about Mr. de Botton, as I spent two years plowing through Proust and developing rather a personal relationship with the entirety of In Search of Lost Time, and after this great effort I have come to believe de Botton is the only person who’s had anything intelligent to say about Proust’s writings (which is rather like being 15 and saying some rock band really gets my angst). On the other hand, God knows my time spent in darkened rooms listening to total strangers drone on has proven to me I can be disappointed by anything.

This, however, did not happen. De Botton had interesting things to say about why people don’t enjoy work (“They’re not supposed to, but they think they are, so they’re dissatisfied”), why workplaces are bizarre (“They put policies in place to make sure you continue to value making money over, say, having sex with your coworkers”), what work says about us as a society (“It’s a good thing that people have jobs no one can understand, at least according to those that judge a society’s evolution by how specialized its workers can be”) and the biscuit industry (“Of all of the people at XYZ biscuit company involved in the design of the Biscuit Alpha, not a single one of them knows how to bake”). He only talked for about 35 minutes but I was fascinated by everything that came out of his mouth. I mean, I know he was shilling his book, but he was great! He sounded like he’d actually really learned something interesting about work. And he’s right – we spend so much of our lives there, we should really be thinking about what’s going on. And he made me think.

I found it especially interesting to listen to someone lecture an audience on a point I’d learned long ago, that it’s perfectly fine to expect work to not provide you with fulfillment, and just with money (and then call himself a cynic, which I suppose everyone who knows me thinks I am). I long ago decided that when it came to work, I was going to look, not for my “true love,” but for my “good enough” – something that didn’t aggravate me and stress me out but provided me with enough money to make the rest of my life okay.

So go, Alain, you were my big hit of the day, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting a copy of his book and regretting not going for an autograph after the show – didn’t want to embarrass myself with squealing like a 15 year old, after all. But gosh, I wish I could work for or with him. At least I realize my dream of being a paid theater critic is not nearly as reachable as my dream of making enough money to go see lots of shows – as long as I keep to those upper balcony seats.

(This review was for shows seen on Thursday, April 2nd. All quotes by de Botton are approximate as I was not taking notes. My apologies for the long gap between this article and my next one, but I’m heading to Sicily for the next 12 days and will not be watching shows!)

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One Response to “Review – Romeo Castellucci’s Inferno and Paradiso – Barbican (Spill Festival) – and Alain de Botton “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work””

  1. Alain de Botton Says:

    Thanks so much for your kind words. Please do come and get your book signed, I’m doing a load of talks in the coming weeks ( And sorry to hear of the mixed feelings about the evening’s plays.

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