Stammering through his introduction, Ben Duke announces that he is going to dance Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. It’s a bold claim to make. The audience seems sceptical and there’s even a flicker of doubt in Duke’s voice. The poem is, after all, over ten thousand lines long and the running time of Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) is a little under an hour and a half. Duke flicks through the pages of his paperback copy trying to find his place. ‘I’ll read you the last lines in case we don’t make it to the end’, he says. But miraculously – and maybe with a little divine intervention – we do make it to the end and the result is physically beautiful and conceptually strong.
In his one-man piece Duke becomes Satan, Adam and Eve, playing the last two in a nude unitard with a fig leaf stapled to the front for dignity. He is at his best, though, when playing God. Standing before the audience in a large, empty white circle, Duke’s God doesn’t command the space like an omnipotent deity; he is clumsy, awkward and, above all else, heartbreakingly human. By Duke’s own admission this is a self-obsessed bit of casting. Parts of his own life slip into the show and his own struggles as a man, a husband and a father cling to the poem and its struggling characters in a beautiful, needy embrace. God becomes a despairing middle-class dad and, in one particularly brilliant moment, a shy guy at a bar asking Lucifer for his number. Like the God in Milton’s poem his flaws make him relatable and irresistible and Duke is such a charismatic performer that the audience hang on his every word and marvel at his every movement even in the show’s more abstract sections.
In a moment that captures the spirit of the show, music starts but Duke stands still and a little ridiculous in his unitard. ‘I’ve missed my cue’, he says, ‘this is supposed to be the Dance of Adam’. He then talks us through the dance which was meant to ask then answer the question of what it means to be a man. Duke is highly talented and his movement is impressive to watch but there’s a lot more speaking than dancing in Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me). This highly original take on Milton’s work has moments of poetry and moments of mid-life crisis stand-up. It fights the epic battles of the war in Heaven with chickpeas and asks and answers that looming question ‘What does it mean to be a man?’ with all the sadness, hubris and joy it entails.
Clearly a lot of work has gone into the performance. It cuts through twelve books of verse to get to the core of the poem and peels back the layers of modern man to reveal his quivering uncertainty. There is also a lot of technical skill on display and a surprising amount of laughs to be had. Translating Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ into a short performance is a task of epic proportions but, flawed and stunning, Duke’s efforts somehow fit the poem perfectly.