Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)
London, Battersea Arts Centre
24 May 2016
Ben Duke recounts Milton’s Paradise Lost, from the creation of the world to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, in his own inimitable way in just seventy-five minutes. That’s the premise of this work, though the clue is in the subtitle (lies unopened beside me) that this is a distinctly alternative view of protagonists and events. Duke’s theme is fathers and the complexity of their feelings for the children they have created and it seems entirely natural that the performance should be punctuated by stressed out recollections of trying to get his own kids and their lunchboxes into the car in time to do the school run. It’s a very well-constructed piece, funny, clever and touching.
This isn’t what you might have expected from what is billed as a dance piece, though there are moments of dancing in it. It’s a very chatty performance verging on stand-up comedy at times with Ben Duke, artistic director of Lost Dog, playing all the parts (God, Lucifer, Adam, Eve). He builds up an easy rapport with the audience, helped by the intimate surroundings of Battersea Arts Centre. He begins by reading us the concluding lines of Milton’s poem, and tells us he hopes we haven’t read it. You very quickly feel that you are in good hands here and willing to follow his loopy and diffident journey through an alternative version of the creation. His God is a polite, rather harassed and hesitant creature, not very confident, and not sure he’s done the right thing.
The work is proof that inventiveness is more important than a huge budget. The setting is minimalist. A shower of chickpeas from above is used for boulders hurled in anger. A bundle of twigs is the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden. The serpent that tempts Eve is memorably done as a sock puppet, producing fits of giggles all round. The very simplicity of it all is much funnier and more affecting than any shedload of special effects. He trusts the audience’s imagination.
Duke is a very endearing performer, with a wry detachment. When he takes off the suit that God wears and becomes Adam he offers us a dry commentary on the solo he should be dancing at this point though he claims he’s missed his cue. “There’s a good bit over here” he says and gives us a few gestures but not the promised dance. He’s more concerned with memories of his kids laughing at him as he rehearsed it, even though as he pointedly says, he created them in the first place. There is an interesting dance moment when Eve eats the apple and staggers woozily, legs turned to rubber by the taste of the forbidden fruit.
That moment is set to a recording of Janis Joplin singing Summertime. The musical choices are interesting, anything from Zadok the Priest to Nick Cave, and always neatly fitted in to the overall concept.
At the conclusion, Duke recounts the future that God shows Adam and Eve. As he recounts the violence and grim details of the suffering to come for humanity, a shower of rain falls steadily on him from above. His narrative slips and slides taking us to that frightening moment for fathers at childbirth when you aren’t sure if the baby is going to be OK. Children make us all vulnerable, even the Almighty.
Paradise Lost premiered a year ago and has won several awards including Outstanding Male Performance (Modern) at the National Dance Awards 2015, and is currently shortlisted for a South Bank Sky Arts award. The production is on tour now to Derby and Salford and is returning to London to the atmospheric setting of Wilton’s Music Hall in July. Do get to see it if you can for a funny and touching view of what we create and how it affects us, in a perfectly pitched and engagingly delivered performance.
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