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 asked the writers to reduce the dialogue that they gave the characters; 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 four 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.' 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.
Audiences can decide for themselves what the 'goddess' represents. As I see it, each of the characters have been traumatised, and they carry the pain and guilt inside them, which gnaws away at them. To me, the goddess embodies this damaged inner self, which needs to be cared for, nurtured, and "reborn."
You are not staging the play in conventional theatre venues?
We first staged it (in 2021) in the Lampworks, a former factory building in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter. We wanted to find venues which had some age to them, and would offer us a labyrinth of different spaces for the play’s different scenes; so the audience would really feel as if they were travelling on a strange journey underground.
How have audiences responded to the play?
It has been overwhelming, really. We always wanted the play to touch something in you, so you feel that it has taken you on a ‘journey,’ too. The first fifteen minutes or so are disorienting - but deliberately so. Audiences are in the same situation as the characters. They start in a state of turmoil; and just as the characters begin to put together the pieces of their lives, so the audience starts to piece together the story, and the meaning of events.
The characters' experiences are dark and brutal, but I think that, ultimately, people find the play uplifting. And it's a play that stays with you – its images continue to haunt you, long after the performance ends...
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Images on this page: Vimal Korpal (Ishmael) and Alex Kapila (Inanna)