Kae Tempest’s Paradise is a bold, modern reimagining of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. For a play famed since antiquity for its focus on character and dialogue, rather than action and events, any restaging of Philoctetes demands a cast that is up to the task. With the likes of Lesley Sharp as Philoctetes, Gloria Obianyo as Neoptolemus, and ESKA as Aunty, this all-female ensemble more than rises to the challenge.
Obianyo excellently captures the emotional turmoil of Neoptolemus’ moral coming-of-age, and Kayla Meikle is the pick of a chorus that brilliantly straddles the blurring of corporate identity and individual personality.
Tempest’s fast-paced, often quasi-poetic dialogue commands the Olivier Theatre, remodelled into a minimalist but perfectly designed ‘desert island campsite’ set in the round. The audience was captivated, and peals of laughter at flashes of comedy contrast with breathless silence at moments of high tension. Huge applause at the end of one (somewhat overly) political monologue from the embittered Philoctetes showed that Tempest’s words certainly resonate. The near two-hour runtime without an interval serves only to further draw the audience in.
Nonetheless, Paradise falls short of the brilliance of the original drama. Philoctetes is a lesser-known Sophoclean play. Odysseus and Neoptolemus are sent from Troy to retrieve Philoctetes and his bow, a gift from the now-divine Herakles. A prophet has told the Greek leaders that only with Philoctetes in their ranks will the war be won, and though Odysseus is the man who abandoned him on the island of Lemnos a decade ago (following a debilitating snake-bite that causes a foul stench and unimaginable pain for Philoctetes), he leads the expedition to retrieve him. Sophocles’ original play follows the virtuous young Neoptolemus as he enacts Odysseus’ plan to deceive Philoctetes, before coming clean and admitting the treachery. Ultimately the god Herakles appears, commanding Philoctetes to give up his bitter resentment and go to the war, on the promise of both glory in battle and divine healing. The drama focuses on questions of manipulation and social education of the young, and the age-old dilemma of whether the ends justify the means.
In Paradise those questions are set aside. The tension between the anonymous modern setting and the ancient objective of the mission (to retrieve an archer and his divine bow, on the orders of a prophet) is never resolved and sit awkwardly with one another. Tempest’s Odysseus is not simply sly and deceptive, but downright twisted, corrupted by pride, arrogance, and hatred. In Paradise, Philoctetes was injured in a raid on a village, ignoring the commands of Odysseus, further increasing the resentment between the two.
In moments of brilliance Tempest’s aims become clear, and poignant comments are made on the worth of the marginalised, the pain of the isolated, and the dissonance between ‘victory’ and society. But more often than not the world around the play becomes too complicated, and the sense of purpose in the dialogue is hazy. By shifting to this inarticulate modern setting the ancient context is lost and it is in fact routinely (and frustratingly) disregarded. Neoptolemus, for example, boldly declares that his name ‘means War’ – an attempt at poignancy, but an at best generous revision of the real meaning of the name of this son of Achilles: ‘New Warrior’. Philoctetes is simultaneously an incoherent madman and an articulate speechmaker, though moments of political grandstanding are perhaps too many and the subject matter too diverse.
The ending of Paradise is Tempest’s greatest departure from Sophocles. Rather than the god appearing to resolve matters, the play takes a new turn. A clever reversal of fortunes unfolds, but the dialogue deteriorates and the relationship between chorus and actors – which until now had been a highlight – is blurred as questions of romance and religion suddenly emerge.
Kae Tempest has taken on a big challenge with this restaging of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Whilst Paradise by no means falls flat, one wonders if the world around this play is simply too complex. For the most part, the relationship between Chorus and the actors is brilliantly maintained, let down only by the final moments. Obianyo’s Neoptolemus was certainly a standout performance, and she grew brilliantly into the role. Tempest’s decision to cast all-female actors is another excellent move. Sophocles had an all-male cast to work with, and Philoctetes is unique among his surviving works for having only male characters. The questions such a subversion of performance begins to ask are intriguing, and demand a confrontation with much of the dialogue in new ways. As a play centred on the damaging effects of isolation and loss, Paradise is a thought-provoking outlet in light of the events of the past few years (despite being penned pre-pandemic); it just fails to deliver on quite all that it promises
- Playwright: Kae Tempest
- A new version of Philoctetes by Sophocles
- Director: Ian Rickson
- Cast includes: Lesley Sharp, Gloria Obianyo, Anastasia Hille, ESKA, Kayla Meikle
- National Theatre - Olivier Theatre
- Until: 11th September
- Running Time: approx. 1 hour 50 minutes with no interval