Dante - Through the Invisible

Premiere 20 July 1996
Venue Randall Theatre, St. Martin’s Theatre, South Yarra, Victoria

3 puppet heads of grotesque animals

Dante - Through the Invisible
The Lion, The Leopard &The Wolf. Puppet Maker: David Hope
Photographer: Unknown

Dante is beset by three wild animals that emerge from the forest's darkness. They are abstract and vicious, bearing claws, teeth and talons, heads and eyes. The sounds of war can be heard closer. Heart beats become war noises. He is attacked, beaten back by the beasts
Script glossary, 1994

DANTE…THROUGH THE INVISIBLE was a visual interpretation of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy.

With its richness of imagery and universal themes, this classic text captured the imagination of Handspan when it was proposed to the company by Carmelina Di Guglielmo who was keen to continue to work with material that reflected her Italian heritage.

The work was originally proposed to be a co-production between Handspan Theatre and the Melbourne Theatre Company, following the companies’ partnership for Gulliver's Travels in 1992. The play's storyboard evolved from creative development workshops held in 1994 with a collaborative creative team from both organisations. However, the Melbourne Theatre Company withdrew from the production in 1995.

DANTE was designed and directed by Handspan’s artistic director, Ken Evans, written by Mac Gudgeon and created by the company ensemble for performance predominantly through abstract visual images, Choreographed to David Chisholm’s soundtrack. It followed the style of Secrets and several of Handspan’s Vignettes. Unlike those productions though, Dante followed a narrative line – that of the original poetic saga imagined in a contemporary context. Snippets of Aligheri’s original text were heard in a contemporary music and effect-based 'eerie score'1 .

Lizz Talbot summarised its approach in her introduction to the play’s synopsis2:

In our treatment of the ancient spiritual theme of journeying into the underworld in search of enlightenment, we have made a number of contemporary leaps and have taken certain liberties with the structure and characters found in Dante’s original text. The structure of 'The Divine Comedy' with its journey from the dark wood of self-doubt into Hell, Purgatory and Paradise has been retained, but in our production, the three states occur within the same spiritual journey provoked by a particular incident in the life of Joe (the contemporary Dante).

Joe, or Dante, the central figure in the production was a soldier, found in a jungle battlefield confronting in his inner self and embarking on a spiritual odyssey through the underworld. The play followed his 'ghastly journey',3 an 'out-of-control hell ride'4 through Inferno and Purgatory to Paradise. Puppetry and animated imagery on stage visualised Dante’s subconscious in a powerful and confronting lighting design by Philip Lethlean that enveloped the work in Dante’s personal dark night of the soul.

This Dante is no 14th century Florentine but a 20th century soldier groping his way through searchlights and gunfire. His inferno is a battle crazed hallucination, his night of the soul a war-torn nightmare.

Dina Ross, Herald Sun, Melbourne,1996

Key figures were highlighted in the darkness, making use of ‘lights on sticks’5. These miniaturised lighting sources were used a puppets themselves, manipulated in concert with looming images conjured from Joe’s imaginings: bestial, phallic and ghostly, they forced Dante into torture and extremis.

Handspan’s focus is on Hell, a surreal landscape of smoky glowing coals inhabited by primitive and robotic beasts, skeletal birds of prey and snapping jaws.

Dina Ross Herald Sun, Melbourne,1996

Dante - Through the Invisible Video segments
ABC: In Review hosted by Louise Adler, 1996

DANTE was an ambitious and experimental venture for Handspan. Its dramatic and complex imagery was stunning, but proved to overpower the drama of the production, particularly for audiences unfamiliar with The Divine Comedy.

Dante is highly polished and visually impressive …there are some spectacular visuals.

John Ashton: Publication unknown, Melbourne,1996

There was no sense of the relationships between Dante and the two recurring puppet characters who accompanied him on the journey. The programme explains that these two are his guide: the poet, Virgil; and the love of his life, Beatrice, but they were ill-defined and meaningless as personalities and didn’t move me because I didn’t understand what they meant to Dante.

Janet Dalgleish, The Australian Puppeteer

Or for those who knew it well enough to have decided views on the classic’s interpretation:

Such a stripped and single focused reading dilutes Dante’s text. In the real comedy, the poet is protected by his muse Beatrice and avoids such horrors.

Dina Ross, Herald Sun, Melbourne,1996

Dante is a visually memorable production. Small children should however, be left at home.

John Ashton, Publication unknown, Melbourne,1996

DANTE was Ken Evans’ last production with Handspan. By the end of the play’s first season, a new artistic director, David Bell had been appointed to the company and any future evolution of the project was shelved.

  1. Dina Ross Review, Herald Sun, Melbourne,1996
  2. Lizz Talbot Dante Research Report 1995
  3. Michael Veitch Review, The Age
  4. John Ashton Review, Publication unknown, Melbourne, 1996
  5. LOS – lights on sticks, developed by Philip Lethlean and used by Handspan artists in many productions since

Scroll back to Click Tab: The People & The Performances

Creative team
Devised by Carmelina Di Guglielmo, Ken Evans, Mac Gudgeon, Lizz Talbot.
Director & designer Ken Evans
Writer Mac Gudgeon
Dramaturgical assistance John Romeril
Lighting designer Philip Lethlean
Composer David Chesworth
Sound design Peter Jago
Choreographer Jonathan Taylor
Creative development Cliff Dolliver ,Wayne McCauley, Hugh Wayland, Tom Consadine,
Melanie Beddie, Andrew Hansen, Michele Spooner, Avril McQueen
Dante Michael Butcher
Puppeteer Winston Appleyard
Puppeteer Carmelina Di Guglielmo
Puppeteer Andrew Hansen
Puppeteer Lizz Talbot
Production team
Production manager Paul Judd
Stage manager Marnie Mc Donald
Construction supervisor David Hope
Set/Puppet construction Katrina Gaskell, Craig Hedger, Rob Matson, Michele Spooner,
Mary Sutherland
Consultant aerialist Simon Mitchell
Consultant pyrotechnician Aaron Beacaire
Publicity Meredith King
Graphic design Jenkins Hall Advertising Pty Ltd
Photographer Ponch Hawkes
20 July – 3 August Randall Theatre, St Martin’s Theatre, South Yarra, Victoria
Total performances 19
Total audience unknown

Scroll back to Click Tab: The Production