Philoctetes is not the best-known tragedy of Sophocles’ back catalogue. The play centres around a mission to trick Philoctetes, who has been injured in battle and left stranded on an island, into returning to war with his magic bow. He and the wound on his leg fester with resentment. Wily Odysseus, the man who abandoned Philoctetes, has sent in a young soldier, Neoptolemus, to do his dirty work.
As might be evident from this description, Sophocles’ play is heavily skewed towards discussion rather than action. Debates range from the clash between green Neoptolemus’ sense of honour and battle-hardened Odysseus’ lack of scruples to several characters’ attempts to convince Philoctetes to give up his grudge and move on with his life. In Kae Tempest’s new adaptation, Paradise, a combination of savagely poetic turns of phrase and astonishing performances from the all women cast make many of these debates sing. The island on which Philoctetes has been stranded appears as a kind of limit case for (un)acceptable behaviour, a crucible for working out the kind of society we want to live in.
Rae Smith’s set helps create this liminal space. Staged in the round in the Olivier, the set sprawls from a makeshift camp on one side of the circle to Philoctetes’ isolated cave on the other, with a sandy floor in between, a make-shift amphitheatre. Tempest’s adaptation is vague on setting – the chorus make references to prison ships, deprivation, missing papers and, beyond the island, endless war. Some of the chorus dream of escape and access to consumer goods – Starbucks and Deliveroo – anachronisms that can be jarring against the rest of the play. The Greek army’s conduct is given a neoliberal, colonialist inflection. However, the vagueness of the temporal and geographical setting means that the critique does not always find its mark.
The chorus welcome the audience into the world of the play. They are a community, ‘sisters’ that care for each other, even when they bicker – in contrast from the violence and trickery that the male characters bring to the island. The choric interludes are some of the most poetic moments; the musician ESKA’s haunting vocals as Aunty are a reminder that the chorus of Greek tragedies was originally sung. The chorus also serve a fun, metatheatrical role, commenting on the action that they watch unfold and rating Neoptolemus’ performance.
Gloria Obianyo and Anastasia Hille are the perfect foils for each other as Neoptolemus and Odysseus. Hille, with her clipped, gravelly tones and brusque manner, is absolutely believable as a veteran soldier, prepared to achieve victory in the war by whatever means necessary. Obianyo emphasises Neoptolemus’ youthful idealism but also suggests a slipperiness about where his true loyalties lie; as the chorus observes, he is an excellent actor.
The magnetic Lesley Sharp gives a compelling and compulsive performance as Philoctetes. She carries her wound close, mistrustful and prickly but also deeply vulnerable, howling with sobs when Neoptolemus tells her that his father Achilles is dead. Seeing Philoctetes gradually drop some of his defences when Neoptolemus proffers friendship makes the deception seem even more horrible. Yet, as the chorus remind us, Philoctetes is also deeply flawed; his pain has made him selfish and his isolation is, in part, self-imposed. Ian Rickson’s rich production deftly shifts the terrain of sympathy between the characters. I found myself appalled by supposed ‘good guy’ Neoptolemus’ sudden violent outburst against Philoctetes, all the more alarming because it is unclear whether he is ‘acting’ or he means it (whichever, he still pisses on Philoctetes). The reversal towards the end of the play even made me feel a crumb of sympathy for Odysseus.
In Seamus Heaney’s adaptation of Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy, which was set in the context of the Troubles, the ending brings hope that justice might be on the horizon and long-held grievances might be forgiven. The ending of Paradise is less hopeful; the cycles of violence seem like they will continue. The war rages on but some will no longer consent to participate in it.
Paradise is on at the National Theatre till 11th September. More info here.