Directed by Donald Farr. With Stephen Noonan (Satan) and Kananu
The Bristol Old Vic is the oldest purpose-built theatre in England, one
that has come back to a more vigorous life in recent years. And now it has
taken a big risk and mounted a spare and original production of Paradise
Lost. Yet another production is being mounted almost simultaneously at
a theatre in Northampton. Why?
The immediate reason is the extraordinary success of Philip Pullman's children's
books. The National Theatre in fact commissioned this production because of
the dramatization currently being staged in London of His Dark Materials.
As Pullman has made widely known, his main source of inspiration was Milton.
And yet of all classic texts one would have thought Paradise Lost would
be the most difficult to stage, not because it does not contain dramatic moments
but because Milton himself abandoned the idea of writing it for the theatre
and instead turned it into an epic with a strong narrative line and made the
setting the entire cosmos. But Donald Farr and his young team were not to
be discouraged. He is, says the programme note, interested in rediscovering
classics, especially 'slightly neglected' ones.
If that is how one of the world's great poems is now regarded in England,
then perhaps it is not surprising that nobody involved in this production
seems to have much sense of what it is all about. It is so cold that no-one
is led to care much about the final banishment, and thus it is wretchedly
inadequate to the challenge of Milton. A good deal of cutting is necessary,
of course, if you are going to squeeze a twelve-book epic into 2 hours' theatre:
sensibly and obviously, the war in heaven (Book VI), is omitted, along with
the book of creation (Book VII). Obviously too, that 'undigested lump of futurity',
as C.S. Lewis called Books XI and XII, has gone - but that still leaves 8
books of sublime poetry.
After a brief introduction in Hell, a kind of bleak waste land with Satan
and his angels in colourless tunics, military dress, or grey suits, it is
a relief, even a pleasure, to see Sin wearing a red dress and displaying some
thigh as she embraces Satan and identifies his adversary as their son, Death.
The possibility is missed of making fun of Satan's mistake about who this
gruesome opponent is, but then so much is missed here. It would have been
a good idea, for example, to use film or TV to represent the Heaven that has
just been lost, but in fact it is rather the modern world that is represented
in a confused way on screens, as if on CCTV. And there are other misuses of
the modern world. At one point Satan (Stephen Noonan) speaks while leaning
on a kind of metal filing cabinet, for no obvious reason. Moreover, since
Satan's great speeches are spoken in a deliberately flat tone, one is not
too sad to see the production soon move on to Adam and Eve and stay with them
to tell their story for the rest of the evening.
Unfortunately they enter, naked of course, but in a large, ugly perspex
box, a jokey visual reference to the Eden Project. It is presented to us with
a large over-title as EDEN TM and we get a very brief version of Satan's wonderful
Niphates speech, which misses every chance at pathos or sympathy. Uriel alerts
Gabriel (played by a woman) to Satan's passion, which those of us confined
to the audience had not much noticed. Meanwhile ridiculous angels flutter
their wings in the wings (was this a very bad visual pun, or just inadvertence?),
and pass Adam and Eve briefs to put on. Why? Is it so that their nakedness
does not offend, or to keep them warm on this cold stage? And then Satan's
great voyeur speech ('Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two/ Imparadised
in one another's arms') is delivered not as if the speaker is in internal
torment, but as if he, like the rest of us, cannot quite see what all the
fuss is about.
Up on top of a tall piece of furniture, Satan now lowers a speaking tube
into Eve's ear for the dream sequence. This episode cries out to be dramatized
in a stage version, but the chance is missed, even for a film version (film
after all is our collective dream). Fortunately Eve (Kananu Kirimi) herself
speaks well, the only member of the cast who actually tries to appropriate
Milton's lines as her own. The first act ends with a brief visit from the
angel Raphael, enacted by a teenage boy who speaks the lines as if he is a
mere mouthpiece. Of course in a sense he is, but on stage, if this is indeed
the point, he sounds simply like a badly trained actor.
During the interval, some people left, not to return, while others consoled
themselves by commenting on the beauty of the verse or commiserated with each
other about how hard the story was to follow. A party of schoolgirls thought
the angels were 'fun'. No-one I heard or talked to had anything to say of
Satan. Isn't that extraordinary? And indeed, so far he had spoken those of
his lines that were left to him in a flat, inexpressive way, as if they were
someone else's and he could not quite imagine what he was supposed to mean
The second act begins with Eve's suggestion to Adam that they divide their
labours. The ensuing dialogue, one of the keys to understanding the human
dimension of the poem, is statically spoken by two actors who simply face
and listen to each other. And Adam's effort to explain that he is 'not diffident'
of Eve is spoken in a sulky, weak voice. It is hardly surprising that Eve
would want to get off by herself for a while. Adam's complex and psychologically
dense speeches in which he finally lets her go are reduced to one line, albeit
one of the wisest in the poem: 'Go; for thy stay, not free, absent thee more'.
Next, Satan as snake. How is that to be done? Well, here, he takes off his
jacket and turns his back to the audience to reveal the lighted image of a
snake on his back. The audience laughs. Point made, and at least we all got
it. The stage lights then come up, and Satan delivers his seduction speeches,
or thankfully brief versions of them, as if he is rather sorry to have to
do it. The forbidden tree is a square plastic box of red apples. And finally,
when it is too late and he has lost the audience, Satan starts to convince,
marginally, with his 'Do not believe those rigid threats of death' speech.
Eve reaches into the box, brings out her apple and eats. The angels return
carrying a lot of red and white police scene-of-crime tape with which they
criss-cross the stage. Adam steps through it and accepts his fate. One is
no longer really listening to the verse, but visually the scene reminds a
little of the great Rembrandt sketch of a guilty, fallen Adam and Eve. Then
the lustful, self-indulgent sex scene is done as a dance, the tape is removed
and clothes are donned as wraps before the angry recriminations, during which
Eve slaps Adam in the face and he pushes her to the ground. But without the
'Out of my sight, thou serpent' speech, which gives resonance to the whole
poem, this violence makes little sense. Now here come Sin and Death again,
this time with Death on bizarre stilts, and Satan sends them down to earth.
The devils return to the stage, but the chance is missed for the change of
Satan's bliss to hiss in his great gloating speech of triumph. And here comes
that teenage boy again, this time as God walking in the garden, but still
in a white suit and still with no idea how to speak his lines. The guardian
angels come on with suitcases, on their way back to Heaven, while Eve, at
the back of the stage, puts on a red blouse and black skirt. Sin and modernity
Eve now makes as much as she is allowed to of the great sequence of reconciliation
speeches from Book X, beginning with the idea of suicide and then taking the
blame on herself so that misogyny is transformed into heroism. Adam and Eve
talk about death, and the script uses the 'long day's dying' speech as a context
for stage-play with two dangerous-looking knives - with which they are still
planning to kill themselves. How are they to be saved from this suicidal impulse?
There follows perhaps the worst travesty of all. Adam and Eve shuffle forward
to the front of the stage and sing a truly dreadful song which goes like this:
'Wash me, cleanse me, etc', repeated several times. Then those angels come
in again, joining in the song as a chorus. At which point, or thereabouts
(I was no longer watching as closely as I should have been), the boy in the
white suit (who is now Michael but equally inexpressive) tells them they have
attained 'the sum of wisdom'. This phrase, with its intimation that things
are almost over, produces an audible shifting and rustling in the audience.
Slowly, and with some renewed dignity, Adam and Eve climb a kind of scaffold
erected at the back of the stage, and the lighting leaves them in silhouette,
a fine theatrical moment. And that's it! Down comes the curtain and the cast
lines up for the single curtain call. We can all troop out. Most people look
bemused, some bored or angry even: no-one looks (as one can after reading
the poem, or after attending a fine play) uplifted, aglow. I did not have
the heart to go on to see the Northampton production. And almost no-one who
has not done so already under the impetus of Pullman's success will have been
inspired to go back and read that wonderful poem. Indeed, some of the reviews
in the broadsheet press have suggested that this two hours' traffic will do
instead. That is the real tragedy.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.