A one-man staging of Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic and extremely serious poem, sounds like the sort of megalomaniacally ambitious project that can only be executed ironically. Indeed, when Ben Duke introduces the piece – back at the Battersea Arts Centre nearly a year after its premiere here, and just over a year since the devastating fire from which the BAC has so resiliently arisen, phoenix-like – he does it with charming self-deprecation.
Fumbling and appearing to lose his place in his copy of the book, he shyly admits that the dress rehearsal didn’t go as well as planned. His act is so complete that it’s almost impossible to tell what is improvised and what is scripted. This introduction, its style borrowed from the toolbox of stand-up comedy, transpires to be a clever convergence of narrative and meta-narrative. Duke is playing the part of playing the part. We never witness anything that isn’t deliberate, and nothing is included purely for its humour. Every joke is shadowed by a discombobulating emotional barb, and this fundamentally comedic piece is an outrageous, uncynical and full-spirited exploration of the impact of tragedy – namely, the Fall of Man.
Duke plays God, Lucifer, Adam, Eve and the serpent – although it quickly becomes apparent that, playing everyone, Duke is playing himself. His God is a nerve-wracked, winningly awkward creator twisting and jerking through his process like a mime with a suit full of caterpillars. God is clumsy and forever learning: he attempts to ask for Lucifer’s number in a nightclub and fluffs it; his Godhood elides with Duke’s own experience of fatherhood and he acts out attempting (and failing) to get a recalcitrant child into the car. God’s struggle with Creation and its responsibilities are paralleled by Duke’s fragmented retelling of meeting his partner, having a child and making the piece. The choreography (where it manages to break through the set piece spoken word sections) is characterised by a sense of ad-libbing and malleability, with Duke’s body quivering under the weight of his own wild movement, possessed by the physical voice of each character in turn.
As with the poem itself, the arc of Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) is split in two, with the first following Lucifer’s rise and fall, and the second following Adam and Eve’s creation and ejection from Paradise. Both arcs end with a fall (in fact, Fall) from Heaven, and both arcs are as much about Duke’s experience of creating a work of dance theatre, creating a marriage and creating a child as it is about Biblical exegesis. His interpretation of the falls are surprising in that they are portrayed as being as deliberate as his earlier scripted fumbles.
The battle between God and Lucifer is acted out by a leaping, shouting Duke, showered in chickpeas intended to stand for boulders and paper cut-out figures intended to stand for the bodies of angels. It looks like a deliciously dramatic joke, but it ends with God grabbing Lucifer’s hand as he dangles over the precipice of Paradise, saying to him, “I need you to fall.” It’s softly spoken, disturbingly touching. Lucifer falls. Similarly, after Eve eats the apple of knowledge and revels in her own self-knowledge (a brilliantly gag-wanton Duke stretching and curling in a languid self-seduction while Janis Joplin sings ‘Summertime’), she hands it to Adam, explaining, “I need you to fall.” Adam falls, and God is forced to show them the future as it expands outwards from this act, including the crucifixion of his son.
If I had to write a soundbite for this piece, it would be, ‘It made me laugh, it made me cry.’ The level of cliché inherent in this feels almost dishonest, as if I’m being sarcastic about my own review. It reads like an undermining of critical writing. But it’s perfectly true, and also seems appropriate for this show, where narrative was a supple and undermined thing, where the towering figures of God, the Devil, Adam, Eve and Jesus were thrown into the turmoil of domesticity, where scenes that felt as if they were emblazoned with the #relatable hashtag sat flush against moments of devastating poignancy. It is a solo work multiply peopled, and a rare achievement of emotional scale using the simplest tools.
Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) is on at the BAC until 28th May, and then touring. Click here for more information.