By Kabejja Ganya
On paper, Paradise Lost looked very confusing and absurd to me. An one man retelling of some ancient, epic, long poem I had only heard about once or twice in now disregarded English textbooks featuring some comedy and dance, I did not know what to expect. However at the end of the performance, I felt somewhat proven wrong. While yes, the performance is the eccentric retelling of Paradise Lost by John Milton – which is either 10 or 12 books long (depending on what version you are reading) – it is also a daring, thought provoking, experimental play. It was regularly chaotic, and often I was quite bewildered by what was happening on the stage, yet there was structured order within this chaos.
From the minute the play started, I knew it was not a normal production. Having watched a number of plays in the past, I expect a few things, the lights turn off, the curtains open etc. Yet Paradise Lost has this all stripped away and just one man (Ben Duke, a wonderfully adept performer) enters the room casually and starts to talk to the audience in a light-hearted way with the lights full blast. And this set the tone for the rest of the show: a lack of pretence, a lot of jokey breaking of the fourth wall and an absence of grandeur. This certainly helped to break any invisible theatrical barriers between him and the audience, we were not merely observers but also part of the play itself. Also it fitted well with the experimental nature of the play, which plays around with the plot of the original poem.
The poetry is about two biblical stories, the battle between God and Satan and the fall of Adam and Eve. The play mostly follows this plot but also includes a modern day story about the life of a relationship. All of these stories are intertwined very closely to the point where sometimes the characters and the storylines blurred together. Yet I feel that there was some order in this, the source material was the major overriding story while the other storylines were micro-stories which helped to bring out the themes even further. Furthermore there were clear, slight, sometimes ridiculous changes to the tales of Adam and Eve and God and Satan, like Lucifer (the future Satan) going to a pub after getting annoyed with God. These changes helped to make a story that could feel very distant and irrelevant with all its extravagance feel a lot more relatable.
In addition, the use of lighting and music was truly skilfully executed throughout the production. At certain points the lighting created shadows that gave Ben Duke some aura of majesty, particularly during the moments when he played inhuman beings (God or Satan). The scene where Lucifer fell from heaven was breath-taking with the large shadow behind him. The skill was also seen in the use of music. The music was applied in multiple ways, for pop culture references and humour (the Star Wars theme song was used at the start to hilarious effect), and also for emotional impact. I would say that by far the best use of music in the show was the scene where Duke re-enacts the fight scene between Lucifer and God. It is a scene that can be described as kind of ridiculous, one man trying to act out a fight scene by himself but the amazing aspect of the scene is that the music overwhelms everything he is saying. It was like watching a child playing wildly. When the show came to a crescendo with brilliant epic music, playing in the background at the end with the striking monologue with Ben Duke under a shower, I was left emotionally overwhelmed by both the words and the atmosphere created by the music. All in all, I left the studio feeling despite everything, that there was sense in all of it, that it was something truly thoughtfully made.