Paradise is the new play by Kae Tempest performing in the Olivier at the National Theatre. A modern reimagining of Sophocles’s tragedy Philoctetes, this is a vibrant and engrossing spectacle bringing themes of war, suffering and honour to a modern audience as Tempest resets the piece in a refugee camp rather than Greek island Lemnos.
Rae Smith’s set design is stunning. We sit in the round in a style emulating the Greek amphitheatre’s of Sophocles’s era. One side of the stage forms a makeshift camp inhabited by the chorus, the other is Philoctetes’s cave filled with dried palm leaves and brightly coloured, albeit dirty, fabrics. In the centre of the space is a desolate dustbowl; where most of our action takes place. The Olivier is a notoriously difficult space for performers, but Smith’s differentiation of the zones creates a more intimate space than the normally echoey auditorium where our actors get lost among the swathes of purple chairs and cavernous concrete walls.
Odysseus and Neoptolemus (son of Achilles) arrive on the island to find Philoctetes and take him, and the bow of Heracles, back to the war with the Trojans. Odysseus is portrayed brilliantly by Anastasia Hille – his complex mixture of intelligence and dishonesty shines through and makes him distinctly unlikeable. Neoptolemus, Gloria Obianyo, is striking in their morality despite being forced to act dishonourably by Odysseus – lying to Philoctetes to make him come with them. I cannot take my eyes of Obianyo when she is on stage – she exudes such a presence despite the humility of their character, and her performance is moving and thought-provoking in its subtlety.
Lesley Sharp is an outstanding actor, and her Philoctetes is no different. Tempest’s writing accompanied by Sharp’s physicality and vocal performance bring distinct humour to this tragedy. Tragedy it is not; in fact, it is more akin to one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. I am not expecting to laugh so much at a piece that originated 2,500 years ago and Sharp’s brilliant delivery brings this updated version to life.
Whilst there are three leads, the chorus are vital to this piece. All the members remain on stage at all times, providing support or contradiction to our three leads and they demonstrate the flaws of all three characters. These women show that Odysseus, Philoctetes and Neoptolemus are flawed individuals who each have their own challenges and strengths. Our chorus act as mediators of sorts, to demonstrate the fallibility of humankind.
Despite the humour that runs throughout the piece, on some level it makes me deeply sad. The omnipresence of war, displacement of people and pride throughout human history reminds me of the similarity between our modern society and that of Sophocles, despite nearly three millennia passing.
A huge fan of Tempest’s poetry collection, Hold Your Own, Paradise is another triumph and a testament to their talent. A modern retelling is a difficult task and one that Tempest has performed with outstanding insight to create a sharp commentary on human societies.
Paradise is playing at the National Theatre until 11 September 2021. For more information and tickets visit the National Theatre’s website.