Veteran Edinburgh writer and performer, Mike Maran, follows Dante’s giant footsteps in a journey through Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso in search of love. These final performances, which last two hours including one interval, are Mike’s Fringe farewell.
On Saturday, Mike Maran dragged me to Hell and I didn’t want to leave. That’s the biggest trouble with Dante Alighieri’s epic poem in three parts, it starts off with the most interesting of the realms. Or, to paraphrase one of the play’s lines, it starts well but trails off and is interesting, less interesting and then even less so. Like Mike Skinner said, I’m going to Heaven for the company but Hell for the company. Let’s face facts, the more interesting people are there. That’s not the case with Maran’s homage and love letter to this great piece of Italian literature.
Throughout A Divine Comedy, Maran keeps the audience’s attention and his show is a triumph, a great example of how one man, with some assistance from a pair of wooden mannequins, can stage an epic. There are some lovely asides throughout the play, such as how Maran does not want to sully the source material with modern politics. However, he does use a reference to a quote from Paradiso to make a point about today’s politics, especially those who face exile from their home, as Dante himself did.
“You shall learn how salt is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and climbing another’s stairs.”
Maran also uses reported comments from an off-stage theatre director to explain how it is hard to translate a Fourteenth Century Italian poem into the modern world, if only because of the cultural references and the norms of the day. However, as Warner Brothers have recently said about their older cartoons*, you need to present art as it was originally created or you will re-write history so that once acceptable prejudices appear as if they never existed. The slurs and insults in the poem are of cultural relevance, plus what could seem phobic or bigoted in our eyes and via translations does not necessarily mean it was intended that way.
I don’t know if a knowledge of the poems is vital to enjoy this adaptation, as I have read them, thank to an introduction to them by Chris Claremont. Who says you never learn anything from from reading comics? Having said that, I don’t think you do, although you may miss the odd in joke, such as one about Thomas Aquinas. Maran is a great performer and a wonderful storyteller. Watching the show was like settling down for a Jackanory version of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. That’s a not a slight on his ability or narrative, more a reflection of how accessible he makes them.
There are some wonderful moments during the play, such as the line about distaste for preachers who play for laughs then take the money and run. Perhaps it was me but that definitely seemed aimed at certain politicians. I also enjoyed it when Maran talks about Beatrice as his face lights up and his voice has a joyous quality to it. Listening to him, you believe that when she holds you hand and you revel in her beauty, love is all you need.
Maran makes no bones that he does not share Dante’s religious faith, which is obvious at his regular digs at divine justice, which may fit with scripture and doctrine but is neither fair or just. While he has an acknowledged absence of faith, Maran also has the knowledge that we are made of star-stuff and are a way for the cosmos to know itself. When the main character’s faith is tested, he defers to Dante’s words rather than stumble back to Inferno due to proclaiming false witness.
I didn’t realise that the performance I saw was the last time Maran plans to perform it at the Fringe until he said so at the end. That’s a damn shame because this is a great piece of theatre and I would love to see it again, albeit in a slightly cooler and more comfortable seat. The next day I learned that my son is reading the poem and he would enjoy and benefit from seeing it. However, he did say that there is a chance he will perform it at Portobello some time in the future. That alone means I will regularly check his website in the future.
*No, I never thought I would compare the likes of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies with epic Middle Ages Italian poetry but there you go.