Review: Could Paradise Be Theatre's Sleeper Hit Of 2021?
Loosely based on an Ancient Greek play from over two millennia ago, and with an all-female cast, Paradise at the National Theatre has all the ingredients to be the sleeper theatre hit of the year.
We've seen some publicity around this play but, with the exception of the barely recognisable Lesley Sharp in the title role, there are no names or faces that your average punter will clock at first glance. The poster and synopsis hardly prepare the audience for the jaunty thrill ride that Paradise is — the source material is obscure, and writer Kae Tempest is known more for their solo work as a performance poet than as a playwright.
On an island which serves as a mixture of prison and sewage farm, the warrior Philoctetes has been abandoned by his own army with only his bow and a grievous leg wound to remind him of his past. A Greek chorus of nine women are the only other island occupants we meet — we see them as they go about their daily lives, living off the land and dreaming of escape. Into this milieu arrive the general Odysseus and his aide Neoptolemus who want to bring him back to Greece to help with the war effort.
The plot doesn't veer too far from the basics of the original play but what Tempest adds here is a gripping script which pulses with a rap rhythm, and shines at every turn. There is rarely a moment that doesn't vibrate with drama, humour ,or both. As well as doing justice to Sophocles' motifs of honour, family and betrayal, the topics here include gender politics, fascism, racism and genocide. One climactic speech decries elements of modern living: "I've seen the future. There is no grace in death, people live forever, bloated on their hatred, screaming out to close the borders, stockpile the medication, trading pixelated sexual favours with other people's avatars."
Tempest's whip-smart text has layers upon layers of subtext; this is a drama that will reward repeat visits, even after the zeitgeist references fade into the history books.
Lesley Sharp portrays Philoctetes as a sweary Cockney, a surly dropper of aitches who trusts nothing beyond his weapon in a performance which will surely garner awards. Opposite her, Anastasia Hille plays the wily serpent Odysseus, looking to charm his old comrade into one more battle even if it means turning Neoptolemus (Gloria Obianyo) against all the values the young soldier holds dear. Hille's snarls are worked to great comic effect: when one of the chorus suggests treating a wound with oregano, Odysseus snaps back "I'm not a fucking pizza!"
Director Ian Rickson keeps the pace taut and flowing, with rarely a dull moment. He returns next year for another run of the much-lauded Jerusalem, another play built around an earthy mythic hero with unenviable choices. Paradise may not be as acclaimed as Jerusalem but this brave, energetic and inspirational production certainly deserves similar plaudits.
Paradise, National Theatre. Tickets £20-£89. Until 11 September
Last Updated 16 August 2021