Paradise describes both the Garden of Eden and Heaven. It can also mean a park in which animals are kept or a state of supreme bliss. And, it is in the context of this latter condition that a form of paradise can be found in the delightful, creative surrealism that occupies the thoughts of Ben Duke.
This is a courageous and – above all – funny one-man show, which takes Milton’s seventeenth century, epic poem and adapts it into Duke’s own intensely personal, vulnerable and (although he argues the contrary) surprisingly literal 80-minute journey. If I drew a pie chart of the performance, breaking it into segments of different activity: the larger slices would be his spoken text (part conversational, part stand-up comedy), followed by mime and then a condensed section of dance; others would include smoking, reading, rope-climbing and taking a very long shower.
The work begins with the house lights up and what looks like a mini circus ring in the middle of the stage (conjuring a quick memory of Lost Dog’s Place Prize-winning It Needs Horses, from 2010/11). Duke has a diffident, hesitant speaking style and his opening patter is laced with a self-deprecating lack of confidence (“I’m haunted by the idea that this is the place it could all go so terribly wrong”). It’s a characteristic that worked for Hugh Grant and it works for Ben Duke.
He can’t find the right place in the book to begin with a choice Milton quote and as he searches, Duke says that most people decide whether they will enjoy a show after the first two minutes before adding that he has about 20 seconds left. He then reads an extract from the poem’s end because “…based on the dress rehearsal, I’m not entirely convinced that we’ll get that far”!
The audience is then instructed to close their eyes and it’s clear that many obey. In the meantime Duke skilfully climbs a rope so by the time eyes are reopened; he is dangling several metres above the stage to the awakening of Also Sprach Zarathustra. As Richard Strauss’s iconic music ends, it’s replaced by the sound of dripping water to represent infinite nothingness and Duke takes on his first role, playing God.
He explains the choreography is being “made up, as we go” because he imagines that’s how God would have done it; and, if you’re old enough to remember such things, his creative juices are then enabled by the contemplative music from the Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet commercial (Bach’s Air on the G String). The subsequent dance to represent the Creation is styled as if Duke is a drunken waiter perilously balancing an imaginary tray of drinks while squeezing and toppling through a crowded party. He ends up dishevelled and tells a funny anecdote about trying to make this sequence at home, away from the prying eyes (and questions) of his children.
“God has made hundreds of angels, and they’re all perfect”, says Duke. But, of course, we know that one went bad and the funniest section is when God and Lucifer (with Duke, of course, playing both parts) meet on the steps of a night-club. The comic timing of “their” exchange about God remembering Lucifer’s ‘phone number for their first date is brilliant. They move in and God has a baby; but he forgets to take a car seat to the hospital so there is a problem in taking Jesus home.
And so it goes on, with important fragments of the epic journey of Creation sculpted into Duke’s cameos, liberally infused by the ridiculousness of modern life. A rich and eclectic musical tapestry illustrates each episode. Debussy’s Clair de Lune encourages an ingenious representation of the falling angels, a scene (with its score) that Duke tells us he has imagined for many years.
From God and Lucifer, Duke becomes Adam – wearing a comedy nude bodysuit complete with fig leaf – his credits include one to Holly Waddington “for not thinking designing fig leaves was beneath her incredible talents”. Janis Joplin’s gravelly interpretation of Summertime enhances the imagery of Eve and that apple; the consequences of which have Duke taking the longest cold shower ever to have been seen at The Place. And, what I originally imagined to be a circus ring was in fact the material means of soaking up that torrential stream.
Duke’s all-around performance was similarly absorbing but if I could find just one fault in the overall structure of this marathon solo, it might come with the dramatic shift away from the spoken text towards the end of the piece. But, that does nothing to diminish this most adventurous and innovative of solo performances.
A rousing, sentimental finale to the Battle Hymn of the Republic (sung by the Afro-American folk singer and civil rights activist, Odetta) cast my mind back almost exactly nine years to this stage and a solo show ended by the same haunting song (although on that occasion sung by Joan Baez). That was Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s memorable interpretation of several Baez songs in Once; and, although it would be hard to imagine more contrasting performances, both entertainers have the magic to keep a full audience enthralled by their own efforts alone. God willing, I confidently expect to remember this one in another nine years!