John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic poem comprising of 10,000 lines of verse, so perhaps it wouldn’t be your first choice to adapt into a one-man physical theatre-inspired production. Unless of course you’re Ben Duke of Lost Dog and you like setting yourself the challenge of cramming your interpretation of prolific prose into a 75-minute show. With the house lights up, Duke begins by reading aloud the end of Milton’s verse, as he himself acknowledges “at least now you know how it ends, as we might not get there.” Duke’s self-deprecating and bumbling façade soon slips away to reveal a captivating raconteur, who takes the raw emotions that underpin Paradise Lost and recontexualises them as the modern day flawed man.
Overactive imaginations are a prerequisite to enjoy Duke’s Paradise Lost, as him easing his way down a rope suspended from the ceiling is supposed to be representative of God’s descent to earth. We’re also asked to imagine that scarcely a handful of chickpeas falling from above is in fact the wrathful plague sent down from the heavens. Naturally approaching such a grand work of literature in a stripped back manner lends itself well to comedy. That said, although I found some tropes funny the first or even the second time they were used, it does descend into the realm of cheap or easy laughs as some devices are needlessly overused – no doubt indulged by The Place audience that seemed to be made up predominately of Duke’s family and friends.
Duke masterfully plays God with a contemporary dance spring in his step; a grouchy and crabby Lucifer; a bashful but temptation-filled Adam and Eve; and a conniving snake of temptation who takes on the form of a sock puppet. Galloping through such an impressive array of characters is no small feat. From dry ice to gallons of water that gush down from the ceiling, the staging of Duke’s Paradise Lost is bursting with clever tricks and theatrics.
However, if you take the time to look beyond all of the smoke, mirrors and comedic quips, you’ll find a poignant piece of theatre with an emotionally raw soul. Milton’s Paradise Lost centres around the idea of the fall of Adam and Eve. Duke takes this concept and applies it to his mixed feelings about fatherhood, looking down at his children who mock and disappoint him, questioning that if he was the one that created and brought these imperfect humans into the world, isn’t he himself also responsible for their misdemeanours.
Personally I think Duke could have avoided having quite so many nods and in-jokes referencing the world of contemporary dance, and that some of the jibes rolled on for too long. That said, Duke reframes Milton’s Paradise Lost for a modern day audience, stripping it back to the the bare bones of its’ emotional framework, and ultimately presenting it as a text that is just as relevant today as when it was first penned
Paradise Lost was performed at The Place Theatre on 9 and 10 October. For more information, see The Place website. Photo: Zoe Manders.