John Milton wrote Paradise Lost in the seventeenth century, transforming Genesis into an epic poem that spans heaven, hell and all the realms in between. God, Satan, Jesus, angels and demons are all described in transcendental and poetically complex language. What I’m saying is, putting Paradise Lost on the stage isn’t going to be easy.
The Fourth Monkey Theatre Company, however, don’t shy away from challenges. Fourth Monkey is essentially a training programme for actors, and it isn’t afraid to push its students and its creative team.
The location changes are neatly orchestrated by director Ailin Conant and set designer Zahra Mansouri. The large space of the Trinity Buoy Wharf Theatre is separated into two rooms. The first, darkened room serves as hell, paradise and chaos. Pablo Fernandez Baz’s lighting maintains a contrast between the two sides of the space, split apart by the gates of hell. The slight divide between these two worlds allows parallels to be drawn between them, in particular between Leanne Bennet’s Eve and Ami Sayers’s Sin. The presence of hell is always tangible. The second room, pure white and brightly lit, makes an appropriately dazzling heaven when you emerge from the darkness. The audience is led around this large set by helpful angels.
Modern touches help to make Milton’s language accessible. The space and large cast (27 actors) are very well suited to music. Sometimes certain lines are sung with a ukulele accompaniment, while sometimes contemporary songs are used. Spreading the cast throughout the audience creates an echoing effect, which is especially unnerving when the room is plunged into darkness. The angels are updated hilariously: big shot bosses Gabriel and Raphael, played by Sadie Clark and Adam Trussell, had the audience laughing whenever they appeared, as did Ruth Rundle’s sweetly gullible Uriel. The armies of delightfully incompetent, bitchy angels had even more freedom to amuse, mingling with the audience: “It’s sort of compulsory”, sighed a long-suffering spirit who led me to a sing-along, before quietly informing me that she should have got Uriel’s job.
Movement is used fantastically to create environments and great monsters, and comes into its own particularly in regard to the residents of hell. Sayers communicates Sin’s voluptuousness and vulnerability, surrounded by her swarming pack of hellhounds. As Death, Daniel Chrisostomou’s jerky and agile movements had a suitably unnatural appearance. In a wonderful scene where Satan transforms into various beasts, the cast join the metamorphoses in a way that is mesmerising to watch. Satan’s ever-changing nature is further emphasised as both Reuben Beau Davis and Adam Will-Jones portray the character at different times, sharing seductive charisma and tortured anger.
The production isn’t perfect: being regularly shepherded around the space can be annoying, breaking up the action and sometimes leaving you unable to see. One of the more obvious changes to the original was having Bennet’s Eve and Scott McGarrick’s Adam speak broken English before their Fall, and Milton’s poetry after it. Although this made the characters’ transformations more obvious, having the angels supplying the words they searched for sometimes felt awkward. It also felt like a lost opportunity for the actors. In the poem, the change in Adam and Eve after their fall is major but subtle, and it would have been interesting to see McGarrick and Bennet show that through their performances. Of course, this is a comment that comes from a personal view of the poem. Although Paradise Lost’s comedy and visual power would be enjoyable for anyone, it may be more so for those familiar with the original, as the choices made for this interpretation will be clearer.
Fourth Monkey’s production is a fun and skilful adaptation of a difficult poem, and the young cast succeed in rendering Milton’s language accessible and humorous. The audience is directly involved in the experience as they are chatted to by holy powers and encouraged to move around the set, and the movement is visually fascinating. This is a highly ambitious play, and it is all the more impressive for it.
Paradise Lost is playing at the Trinity Buoy Wharf Theatre until June 22. For more information and tickets, see the Fourth Monkey Theatre website.
Photography by Sebastien Dehesdin.