Paradise – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: Kae Tempest.

Director: Ian Rickson

Even before press night, the word on the street was already heaping praise on Kae Tempest’s reworking of Philoctetes by Sophocles. Boasting an all female cast and direction by Ian Rickson, Paradise certainly lives up to the hype but it does take some getting used to.

Philoctetes has been stranded on an island for ten years after Odysseus left him there. Philoctetes has struggled to survive especially with his injured leg, pustulating with blisters so painful that he often loses consciousness. Fortunately, he has his magic bow and arrow with him that allows him to hunt the rats and squirrels that make up most of his diet.

Sophocles play, written in 409 BC, begins when Odysseus returns to the island with the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus, to persuade Philoctetes to come back to Troy where his weapon will help win the war. His bow can take down 30 men at a time. Knowing that Philoctetes will hate him, Odysseus tasks Neoptolemus with the job of coaxing the islander on to the ship and therein lies the rub. Neoptolemus’s stories of Philoctetes’ heroic reputation back in Troy are all lies and, while it breaks the heart of the moralistic Neoptolemus to be deceitful, his plan appears to be working.

In Tempest’s version Troy is just referred to as ‘home’, but it’s plain that Great Britain is where Philoctetes hails from and as the play continues and, after his initial excitement about the thought of returning wanes, he wonders if he wants to go back at all. His wife would have remarried, and everyone would avoid him because of the smell that his leg emits.

The island where he is currently stranded is refigured as a refugee camp and the chorus is reimagined as the camp’s residents, with some happy to be living outside with nature and others who will risk anything to get to the mainland. The chorus – all female – has created a kind of paradise on the island, if only Philoctetes would just see.

As Philoctetes, Lesley Sharp is outrageous, and her Cockney accent along with her swagger is, at first, so overdone it threatens the integrity of the play. ‘Who are yer?’ are Sharp’s first words on finding Neoptolemus on the island, but they come out more like a football chant than a demand. The EastEnders’ vibe – shocking as well as comical – does get the laughs from the audience, but slowly, and because of Sharp’s performance, her Philoctetes does eventually and unexpectedly seem real. A little slow-witted, but tragic and honest, Philoctetes is the moral spine of the story.

There is also humour, but considerably more dialled down, in Anastasia Hille’s performance as the gruff and self-important Odysseus. Hille has great fun as the soldier led by duty, his conscience non-existent, as he seems to suffer no guilt in having left his friend on the island in the first place. Duty also means that he will torture people – prophets and informers – to get the results he wants. Hille manages to show the strain of self-doubt as Odysseus discusses his strategies of war.

With such towering performances from Sharp and Hille, Gloria Obianyo as Neoptolemus is muted, and his youthful moral dilemmas fade into the background against the rivalry and brotherhood of Philoctetes and Odysseus. Obianyo plays it straight – no affected voice, no swagger – and although she captures the age of the young soldier, there’s no real sense of how much it goes against his nature to lie.

Tempest’s script is clear – a great help with the all the exposition needed for this play – but their spoken word background shines in the songs and poems of the chorus, making Rae Smith’s set of sand and scaffolding a little brighter. While Tempest clearly wants to address the problems of today, these politics never detract from the original story and even when Tempest gambles with a new ending, it still is very satisfying.

Best of all is the decision not to update Philoctetes’ weapon to a gun or missile-launcher. The golden bow and arrow, however anachronistic it may be, glimmers like magic.

Runs until 11 September 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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