“It’s a slight paraphrase from the original text,” admits Ben Duke, battered copy of Paradise Lost in hand. His take on Milton’s epic poem is no straightforward adaptation. He scrubs things out, scribbles in the margins, blurs art and life until the two are almost indistinguishable. And it’s all the more stunning for it.
William Blake famously wrote that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”. Duke too seems to align with Lucifer at first, before his sympathies gradually fall down on the side of a flawed, regretful God. His is one of those shows that looks like one thing at first glance before transforming, bit by bit, into something far more interesting and complex. It’s a deceptive, slippery piece, fooling around until suddenly it’s clutching at your heart.
Duke is playing God. That’s why he’s wearing a suit, he explains with a grin, before later shimmying down a rope from imaginary heavens. He’s here to retell Paradise Lost, but he’s not sure how it’s going to turn out. This could all go horribly wrong.
In its early scenes, the show mucks around with Milton, casting God as an awkward, uncertain creator and the battle between God and Lucifer as an almighty lovers’ spat. As the divine power, Duke flings his body jerkily around the stage, his acts of creation contorted and improvisatory, while showers of paper angels rain from above. Later, becoming Adam, he strips down to a flesh-coloured body stocking, complete with conveniently placed fig leaf. It’s mischievous and funny – sometimes very funny – but it’s unclear where it’s all going. Is this it? I catch myself wondering.
Then, with startling force, it hits. What it’s really about is the beauty and wonder and terror of bringing another person into the world. It’s about creation both divine and human. Duke’s young children dance around the edges of the show, their presence always just offstage yet powerfully felt. They are a promise and at the same time a bundle of fears, a nightmare of worst case scenarios. He’s not sure how it’s going to turn out. This could all go horribly wrong.
And creation has gone wrong. Paradise is not only lost but smashed apart. The feeling most often evoked by Duke’s movement as the piece goes on is exposed fragility: a deity stripped of his power and staring with fear and regret at what he has brought into being. By the time Adam and Eve walk out of Eden, the devastation is complete. As he cowers under a battering sheet of rain, the debris of his creation scattered around him, Duke is no longer a God but a weary, broken man, soaked through with the indignity of being alive in a cruel world.
But there’s also an aching desire to start over, to scrap this fucked up, pain filled world and begin afresh. It’s a version of the same desire that gives us hope in the next generation, that allows us to contemplate putting another person on this broken, battered planet in the fragile belief that they might just be able to transform it for the better. We still feel that same urge to create; maybe some day we’ll get it right.