Julie Sorokurs on the South Bank
12 August 2021
Kae Tempest’s Paradise, premiered in the round at the National Theatre’s Olivier by a female company, is a modern reimagining of one of Sophocles’ lesser-known plays – Philoctetes. Lesley Sharp is unrecognizable as the master archer left stranded on an island for ten years by Odysseus (Anastasia Hille), after the former’s foul-smelling wound becomes too much to bear for both himself and the rest of the regiment during a crucial moment in the Trojan War. Odysseus now returns with Neoptolemus Gloria Obianyo), Achilles’ son, to bring Philoctetes and his magic bow back into the same war that has continued to rage on.
Sarah Lam in Paradise. Photo credit: Helen Murray.
Paradise takes place on an island devastated by this war, and presumably by climate change, a combination of which has ensured that all but the island’s least fortunate inhabitants have long abandoned it. Rae Smith’s set nevertheless has an almost cosy quality to it – tents, tarpaulin, and an array of mats and rugs fill the stage. There is a large fire pit, a sandy floor.
Nine women – are they refugees, they have remained after the men have gone to war? – bicker with one another as only a makeshift family thrown together by horrific circumstances would. Their lack of “papers” is sometimes mentioned as one of the reasons that they are unable to leave. They are the chorus, and they are where the play truly shines.
Audiences taking their seats before the start of the performance are already able to watch different members of the chorus climb out of their tents and get to making breakfast and tea. We understand that their circumstances extend beyond the events of this play – that they, and the women both before and after them, have been and always will be there. It speaks to the strength of director Ian Rickson’s deft touch that this silent scene, before the play even begins, can allude to circumstances both transcultural and trans-historical.
Lesley Sharp in Paradise. Photo credit: Helen Murray.
Tempest’s poetic roots are apparent, especially through Aunty (played by the celebrated British singer-songwriter Eska) when she sings out to the audience at the start of the play. She sings about the island – “an island rich with human poor” – and about the impending arrival of Odysseus and Neoptolemus – “They come from the unending war, they’re heading for our beach. They want the wounded one. They’ll trick him with their speech.”
Indeed, when Odysseus and Neoptolemus arrive, they launch into a scheme to convince Philoctetes to return home with them. Hille’s Odysseus is almost consistently played for laughs in these earlier scenes; his gravelly voice and curt delivery clash at times with Neoptolemus’ sincere but unsteady resolve to prove himself worthy of being Achilles’ son. Though having an all-female cast adds an additional meta-narrative about the performance and toxicity of masculinity, Hille and Sharp especially have trouble keeping their performances out of the realm of downright parody.
Obianyo produces unflashy brilliant work playing Neoptolemus, a young soldier evidently still only learning about all the rage that has built up inside him: after an initial inspection of the cave where
Philoctetes now sleeps, Neoptolemus finds animal carcasses, plastic food packaging, and bloody rags that have been used to dress his permanent wound. When Odysseus, in a fit of wistful remorse, remembers aloud how Philoctetes had once had a vineyard and bred horses, the young Neoptolemus can’t help but blurt out, “He must hate you”.
Neoptolemus’ journey is sometimes unclear. We see him help Philoctetes to his feet and keep an eye on his bow. We see him dissuade Odysseus from taking more extreme measures against Philoctetes. We also see him beat Philoctetes into unconsciousness and utinate on him.
Philoctetes himself is truly a shadow of his former glory. Sharp is all crooked angles and hoarse cockney rasps. When Neoptolemus first sees him, it is on the other end of an arrow that Philoctetes has pointed at him. But Philoctetes is more vulnerable than he is paranoid; it only takes Neoptolemus to mention Achilles for Philoctetes to lower his guard and unravel into painful reveries about his former life.
Philoctetes is initially desperate to come home, to see his wife and son even though he can hardly remember their names. But whenever Neoptolemus encourages him to prepare to set sail with them that very same day, Philoctetes is driven to tirade: “Our country is nothing more than a cradle for tyranny.” The audience applause breaks between these monologues are a bit much, but Sharp’s delivery and Tempest’s writing are both sublime. There is little room for doubt whether Tempest had to go far for the inspiration behind Philoctetes’ anger and hurt: “There is no glory in our country to fight for. Our country is Hell.”
Running at just under two hours with no intermission, the final 30 minutes or so lose some of the momentum that the story demands. Philoctetes gets his revenge on Odysseus, but by the end the two become hardly distinguishable from one another. We feel sorry for Odysseus, and there is little satisfaction in what is implied about Philoctetes’ eventual fate. It also looks like one of the women from the chorus will join Neoptolemus on his journey back home, but Aunty’s mention of visa troubles at the beginning of the play suggests that nothing will come of this bid for freedom once they arrive at their destination.
Paradise is Tempest’s first play in eight years (though during this time she has been very active as a poet, spoken-word performer, and recording artist). I hope it is not another eight years before their next work is ready to be staged.