In Search of Beatrice

Productions of the Meno Fortas Theatre, created by Eimuntas Nekrosius, have long become imbued with an inescapable sensation of tragedy.  This sensation likewise comes through in the first scenes of “The Divine Comedy”, based on the poem by Dante Alighieri, debuted recently in Vilnius by the great Lithuanian director.  

A huge, black, heavy sphere, dominating everything in space — a dark planet — is dimly reflected in the metal wall that cuts sideways through the stage.  A black grand piano is revealed at the back of the stage.  A copper kettledrum, cut in a spiral into nine circles of the Inferno, sways above the forestage, springing slightly (set designer Marius Nekrosius, costume designer Nadezhda Gultiayeva).   People clad in shabby gray and black clothes have grown accustomed to the surrounding gloom and do not notice it.  Dante is pulled out of the dismal mundane by his meeting with a cheerful pug-nosed girl named Beatrice (Ieva Triskauskaite), who disappears as suddenly as she had appeared only a moment ago.    She is like a breath of fresh air, like the gift of an instant’s worth of life. Being without her is no longer possible.  She hid behind a cold wall, but he imagines seeing her everywhere.  Light white paper silhouettes of her pug-nosed profile appear here and there all across the stage. 

Rolandas Kazlas is not portraying a distracted poet, engulfed by a romantic longing for his departed beloved.   His Dante is earthly and passionate, and does not wish to come to terms with this loss.  He rushes to search for his Beatrice and ends up in hell; because hell is everywhere she is not.  Virgil (Vaidas Vilius) accompanies him.  It is not the ancient spirit of a pagan poet from Dante’s poem, however, but an amulet-friend, who is capable of commiserating with another person’s pain like few others can. The friends don’t have to go far: people have hell inside their souls, each their own.  The spiral kettledrum rings out – and they are surrounded by suicides with wooden planks in their hands that aim to make themselves into a cross.  The kettledrum rings out again – and “the former honorable citizens of Florence” rush to send letters of repentance “to Earth” with Dante, who places them into a bottomless mailbox.  The kettledrum rings out – and the former Pope is scurrying up the pyramid of Holy Sees, hoping to prolong his stay at the pinnacle of power for at least another minute. Dante is starting to understand people, learning how to listen to them.  And he immediately writes down his discoveries in a book (the hefty folio is lying on the forestage). The new knowledge is torturous at times, and Dante falls in a dead faint.  But the image of Beatrice comes to him and restarts the tired heart with one tender touch.  It is in hell that hope begins to shoot forth in the midst of tragedy.  Love is stronger than hell.  There is a certain tender jealousy in the way Dante watches Paolo and Francesca, who are doomed for all eternity to cross out words of love from every book.  And even though they are forced to cross out all the lines in all the books, they are doing so together, while his Beatrice is far away from him.  But he will find her. 

The air of hope in the production is also due to the fact that the actors playing the inhabitants of hell, purgatory, and heaven are all very young students of the Vilnius Conservatory.  Their sincere dedication to their performance gradually brightens up the tragedy. Music picks up that mood as well.  By the play’s finale, the wide and free melody of Tchaikovsky’s symphony is born out of improvisations on the grand piano.  Artistic work is yet another force that makes the world go round, according to Nekrosius.  His Dante reaches heaven.  And he finds his Beatrice – even though he cannot embrace her right away: the lovers’ feet appear to be glued to the stage and, for a while, they are simply incapable of reaching one another.  But more than that, he also finishes his book.  His poem adds harmony, capable of subduing the hellfire that casts crimson glow on the gaping bowels of the enormous sphere that has been opened up on stage.  Human redemption lies not just in love, but in artistic work as well.

***

This show was created as a joint production of the Meno Fortas Theatre (Vilnius, Lithuania), the Teatro Pubblico Pugliese (Bari, Italy), and the International K.S. Stanislavsky Fund (Moscow, Russia).   The show’s premiere took place on April 26 on the stage of the National Drama Theatre of Lithuania.  This summer the production will be shown in cities across Italy, and from October 4 through October 6 it will appear in Moscow, on the stage of the Maly Theatre during the “Stanislavsky Season” Festival.

 

Elena Gruyeva

Photo: Dmitry Matveyev

 

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