The Place, London
June 5, 2021
Ben Duke’s Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me), a solo show he conceived, directed and performs, returns to London trailing clouds of glory. These are well deserved, as this is an extraordinary piece of theatre. Like divine providence, it works in mysterious ways. The long build-up is deceptively naïve, the humour bordering on crass before the remarks sharpen and like a punch to the belly, when you at your most vulnerable, Duke gets to the heart of the matter.
In Paradise Lost, Duke (and Milton) deal with the big questions: How did we get here? Where do we go next? Like Milton, Duke does not deal in stereotypes. His heroes are vulnerable and his villains are interesting and not altogether undeserving. Lucifer’s fall resembles a messy family squabble, presented in silhouette to Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune, just one of the many ‘these you have loved’ tunes closing with Battle Hymn of the Republic. There is no question this man knows how to manipulate emotions.
Adam appears from a puff of smoke shielded by the obligatory fig leaf. Eve, a later addition and with an eye on waste management, is crafted from a spare rib. Between all this, and not forgetting the nifty sock-puppet snake, Duke has domestic life and kids to deal with. It is the morbid nightmares where he imagines his daughter’s death or injury that suggests the line the production is taking.
As Adam and Eve leave the Garden, Duke, back in street clothes, stands by the chair. A shower of water opens above him and continues relentlessly for the final ten minutes as he recites a litany of human landmarks and tragedies: Cain and Abel, the building of the Ark, the Tower of Babel, the birth of Christ, the Massacre of the Innocents, the Holocaust.
The closing moment is the crucifixion of Christ, avoiding the customary image of grieving mother, it is the voice of God the father we get. The Almighty pleading for another, for someone else, for anyone else to be hung in place of his son. The audacity and the originality of Duke’s thinking is breath-taking. We are left with a frightening sense that we’re going to hell in a handcart.
Duke opens many avenues to investigate but offers no answers. We’ll have to sort that one out ourselves.