Kae Tempest’s ‘Paradise’ at the National Theatre

PARADISE by Kae Tempest ; Production ; Directed by Ian Rickson ; Set and Costume Designer: Rae Smith ; Lighting Designer Mark Henderson ; Music by ESKA and Stephen Warbeck ; Movement Direction: Coral Messam ; Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt ; Fight Director: Terry King ; Associate Set Designer: Catherine Morgan ; Associate Costume Designer: Johanna Coe ; Staff Director: Danielle Baker-Charles ; Classical advisor: Helen Eastman ; Production photographer: Helen Murray ; National Theatre ; Olivier Theatre ; London, UK ; 4th August 2021 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

Kae Tempest has transformed Sophocles’ Philoctetes into a modern marvel, with the help of an astounding women-only cast.

Paradise follows the story of Philoctetes (Lesley Sharp), a famed warrior of the Trojan War, after he has been abandoned on an island for nearly ten years. Sharp plays the deeply traumatised Philoctetes with a thick Cockney accent, effortlessly commanding the circular stage at the National Theatre.

At first, he resembles more a drunk old man who hangs off the bar at a pub all day and night than a fallen soldier. But Sharp slowly unravels her character’s trauma – both physical and mental.

This all happens in the context of Odysseus (Anastasia Hille) and Neoptolemus (Gloria Obianyo) trying to convince Philoctetes to rejoin the war efforts. And they are watched on by the chorus of women refugees.

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Gloria Obianyo (Neoptolemus) and Anastasia Hille (Odysseus) bring strength and humour to Paradise. Images by Helen Murray.

They too are stuck on this island, which was once a lively civilisation before the long war destroyed everything (this all seems to be set in the near future). The women are a brilliant device used by Tempest, to comment on the actions and whims of the men on stage.

They bring humour to Paradise – mocking the men whose egos run wild. The women have faced pain and suffering – growing from it and moving on as a community.

But Philoctetes’ pride gets in the way. He doesn’t know how to ask for help. He sits in his misery. For he sees himself as the victim – it is who he is. And he is determined to live in pain, reliving his wartime trauma, for it is as if the gods have given him this life. And Sharp lives this misery and madness throughout. It is all over her face and runs through her entire self.

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She leaps, crawls and anguishes all over the stage. The mental and physical pain is thrown onto the stage. She casts her character as the victim of a broken society. The victim of men who have no honour. It is openly attacking our modern world – being run by men with egos.

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The chorus constantly critique the actions of men.

Duty to one’s ‘broken’ country is prized over any real critique of it. Philoctetes laments in the knowledge that greedy, manipulative, and deceiving men will always live on in power, while those who are good and honourable do not receive the same fate.

This is brought to a head during Sharp’s monologue towards the end of Paradise, as she cries out against the hellish state of the country – clearly commenting on the state of the UK right now. The speech is met with ruptious applause from the entire audience.

The writing and acting in Paradise is spectacular – often poetic and full of melancholy. But there are some issues with the slightly clunky staging. The circular stage does allow for the audience to feel immersed in the action, but most of the acting is done out towards the larger side of the audience.

Those in the smaller area of seating see a lot of the actors’ backs. This is disappointing but easily rectified by simply buying tickets in the main seating area.

Once that’s sorted, you’ll get to see all the best bits of this reimagined Greek myth. And you’ll leave questioning why you fight so hard to protect a broken system. It is far from Paradise.

Paradise runs at the National Theatre until 11 September.

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