When Covid restrictions were lifted and theatres were allowed to re-open albeit, with social distancing, the National Theatre decided to turn its biggest space, The Olivier into theatre in the round which meant they could get more seats at the back of the auditorium. Now, with social distancing done away with, they’ve kept the configuration for the first production that is allowed full capacity, Kae Tempest’s play Paradise, which although a year late has finally arrived.
Rae Smith’s set design fills the central space with a sandy, dust-covered floor and detritus such as car tyres and empty crates. On one side of the stage, there’s what looks like a camp or detention centre with tents, a rudimentary wood-burning stove, crockery etc. On the other side is a hideaway with leaves and fronds hiding what’s inside and a row of dead rats hanging outside.
Paradise is based on one of the more obscure stories from Greek mythology, Sophocles’ tragedy Philoctetes which tells the story of three soldiers, the eponymous hero who has been banished to an island by Odysseus who has returned ten years later with Neoptolemus to trick Philoctetes into leaving the island with them. Tempest has updated the setting to a kind of non-time although it must be after 1982 as there’s a mention of Rambo. However, Philoctetes still has Heracles’s iconic bow and an ancient Greek helmet, so time isn’t really important or meaningful in the context of the play.
In this all-women cast of twelve, the star of the piece and the name above the title (although I don’t think the National does such things) is Lesley Sharp as Philoctetes who bestrides the stage (even with a puss-filled gammy leg), literally strutting her stuff and vocally channelling the Mitchell Brothers from Eastenders – this is a cockney lad made bad. However, her towering performance is matched by Gloria Obiyano as Neoptolemus who gives as good as she gets in the battle between the two of them to get their way. The third soldier, Odysseus is played with military precision by Anastasia Hille but her character is off-stage a lot of the time and doesn’t get the chance to shine as much as the other two. The rest of the cast is a Greek Chorus who although at times comment on the action, are really part of it, and all have distinctive characters rather than being a homogenous group as Greek choruses often are.
As for the play itself, there are metaphors and analogies throughout the piece, some of which hit home and others that don’t. Being set on an island, this could be seen as Britain itself or a camp for refugees. There’s a sense of isolation and alienation that reflects what the world has been going through for nearly eighteen months. There’s also a big “state of the nation” speech from Philoctetes that is scathing about the country, racial injustice and got a show-stopping ovation but seemed a bit tacked-on and speechifying.
Ian Rickson directs the play with a firm hand and all the performances have weight and conviction although the action is a little static and often lacks some energy and at nearly two hours long (without an interval), it could do with a bit of a trim. There are a few missteps such as Neoptolemus urinating on Odysseus and a lot of swearing – there’s frequent use of the F word and even the occasional C-bomb. Conversely, in a play short of laughs, the funniest line was when Odysseus is asked if she wants garlic and oregano to treat her wounds, she replies “What am I, a (expletive deleted) pizza?”.
Paradise (the title is ironic) is an interesting piece of theatre that will divide opinion. It has a nice symmetry to it as (spoiler alert) Odysseus who exiled Philoctetes to the island, ends up trapped there himself. Kae Tempest is aiming their bow at too many targets and unfortunately, unlike Philoctetes, a lot of Tempest’s arrows miss the bull’s eye completely.
Review by Alan Fitter
A thrilling story of pride, glory and betrayal.
Kae Tempest, the astonishing writer, recording artist and performer, forges an epic new take on Greek legend.
Philoctetes: once a celebrated wartime hero, now a wounded outcast on a desolate island.
When a young soldier appears, his hope of escape comes with suspicion. And as an old enemy also emerges, he is faced with an even greater temptation: revenge.
by Kae Tempest
a new version of Philoctetes by Sophocles
Until 11 September