Review: Paradise at the National Theatre ★★★★☆

Kae Tempest is better known for their poetry than their playwriting, however, the Ted Hughes award winner and Mercury Prize nominee has delivered an adaptation of Sophocles’ drama, directed by Ian Rickson with an all-female cast, that provides a sizzling critique of modern society, its political fluctuations, materialism and inequality through this 2,500 year old story of three soldiers on a desolate island.

Philoctetes (Lesley Sharp) has been left on this island for ten years by Odysseus (Anastasia Hille) who has now returned at a moment of need for the Greeks, accompanied by Neoptolemus (Gloria Obianyo), son of the now dead Achilles, to attempt to return Philoctetes and his famous weapon to battle.

Lesley Sharp as Philoctetes. Photo: Helen Murray

Paradise retains the Olivier’s current in-the-round configuration. The audience and the Chorus pressing on the main cast from all sides. The set for this wasteland of an island, designed by Rae Smith, recalls New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, Calais and Zaatari – the latter two most-so when a member of the Chorus proclaims that they can’t leave as they ‘can’t get the visas.’

Philoctetes is a man living on a knife edge in a blistering and ferocious performance by Sharp – think Ben Kingsley’s in Sexy Beast but wielding Hercules’ bow and nursing a vengeance that has simmered in isolation for over a decade and is at last ready to boil over.

This is an anger that is directed both at his old foe Odysseus and at what society as a whole has become. A fantastic monologue delivered by Sharp seethes with rage at fascism, racism, benefit sanctions, city boys, and the treatment of the homeless and is met with rapturous applause mid-play from the full capacity audience.

Members of the Chorus. Photo: Helen Murray

Philoctetes knows what they have become in their bitter isolation – “they’ll go quiet in the pub when I walk in,” he says when contemplating his return to society. But Sharp demonstrates his fragility too, ready to crack and crumble at any moment, and a tenderness underneath the bluster in a touching moment with Yasmeen, the terrific Naomi Wirthner.

Although this is definitely a drama, it is a drama that has consistently funny moments throughout, not least in the relationship between Philoctetes and the Chorus. If Philoctetes is a pub-goer then the Chorus, the local islanders, are his long-suffering drinking companions. More acquaintances than friends, they preempt his stories before he has told them and finish his sentences before he does – and they also know to keep their distance. There are strong performances all-round in the Chorus particularly from Wirthner, as well as Sutara Gayle, ESKA, and Amie Francis.

As Neoptolemus, Obianyo delivers a convincing transformation from the moralist son of his country’s great hero to the manipulative conquerer of Philoctetes and this wasteland, whilst Hille plays Odysseus brilliantly as the straight General whose vanity becomes their downfall.

There are obvious parallels that could be drawn between our recent experience of lockdown and the isolation of a man on an island but the production does not overplay this. Tempest changes the ending so that we begin at dawn and end at sunset with a story that has also come full circle, giving a sense of an ending where Philoctetes’ tale is not yet complete.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Paradise is running until 11 September and tickets are available now.

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