Interview with David Allen, the director of Descent
How did the idea for "Descent" come about?
I wanted to create an experience for the audience which would be immersive. I wanted them to feel as if it was happening to them – rather than watching a play in a conventional way. Descent is about people on a journey; so I decided the audience should move through the space, following the characters through different locations. I also wanted something more film-like. I kept telling the writers to reduce the dialogue that they gave the characters to say. Because if the characters are doing a lot of talking, then the audience is simply watching and listening to them. I wanted something that would work as much by sound, light, image and environment, as by character and dialogue.
Each location, then, is like an installation, with its own atmosphere to it. We use multimedia elements as well, such as film, music and dance.
Can you sum up the story for us?
There has been a war. There are six characters and they have all been damaged in some way, or left traumatised by the events. They embark on a journey, a ‘descent’ into the ‘underworld.’ It is a mythical but also psychological journey. The characters have to face themselves, and find the strength to return to the real world, and start to rebuild their lives.
What gave you the idea for the story?
One of the main sources was Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is about a journey through hell. But I was also influenced by a film called Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, where a group of characters travel through a mysterious ‘Zone,’ where strange things start to happen to them, and you can’t be sure how much of it is real and how much is in their heads. And we wanted something of that feeling.
The idea of a descent to the underworld is a classical motif, which appears in myths from different cultures. One of our characters is called Inanna (and there is a classical reference there!). She sees herself as a kind of priestess of an ancient cult; and she believes that, if they are going to be healed, it is necessary for them to undertake this journey - to descend into the underworld, in order to encounter the Earth Goddess, Gaia. And the play in fact climaxes in a vision of the ‘goddess.’ You could take this literally. But at the same time, the ‘vision’ could just be happening in the characters’ imaginations. You could argue that, after the trauma of war, they need a story to live by - a ‘myth’ to give their lives hope and meaning. And the encounter with the goddess is just such a story…
What can you tell us about the venue?
We are staging the play in the Lampworks. This is a former factory building in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter, which is now used mostly as a film studio. It’s a great location for the play; it is very atmospheric and offers us a rabbit warren of different spaces for the play’s different scenes; so the audience will really feel as if they are travelling on a strange journey underground – or maybe through an old abandoned bunker.
How do you think audiences will respond to the play?
As we were working on the script, we did a preview performance, and we know from that experience that audiences are really engaged by the play; and also, that they find their own meaning in it. We think that’s really important – because we want the play to touch something in you, so you feel that the play has taken you on a ‘journey,’ too. I think it’s a play that stays with you – its images will haunt you, long after the performance ends...
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Images on this page: production designs by John Bell