Paradise Lost

John Milton

Bristol Old Vic

(2004)

Review by Pete Wood

Would you adam and eve it - you wait ages for a stage adaptation of Milton's epic poem about the fall of man and then two come along at once. Bristol Old Vic's production is, like all things post-lapsarian, necessarily flawed, but there is much to enjoy. Chief among them is the reduction, in David Farr's production of the epic poem, to a mercifully brief two-hours. Even Dr Johnson, an admirer, remarked of the original that 'no-one has wished it any longer than it was'

Listening to an abridged CD recording of Paradise Lost by way of preparation I, eventually, after some length, fell asleep, only to wake a while later to find the recording far from finished - and this was only the first of three CDs. It could be remarked that, as with cricket, the English, not being a spiritual nation, invented Paradise Lost to give themselves a conception of eternity.

Director David Farr and designer Ti Green though have dragged the work, into the 21st century. The set is like an infernal gymnasium, a series of horizontal and vertical struts with great drapes of cloth behind. Two TV sets show images of a descending staircase, the first of many witty touches which leaven the production. Angels in distressed suits and dresses with wings to match, lie around in various states of abandonment, while Satan, played by the excellent Stephen Noonan, presides over all, brooding, chin in hand, like a demonic chief executive.

Interestingly enough, Milton originally conceived Paradise Lost as a play but then abandoned the idea, perhaps because he wouldn't have been able to get it past the censors, perhaps because the undertaking would have been impossible. Had he not done so the outcome would have put After Methuselah (five-and-a-half hours) and Brand (six-and-a-half) in the shade.

The poem here is boiled down to seven scenes and traces the aftermath of the expulsion from Heaven of Satan and the other fallen angels following their rebellion, Satan's escape to Eden and his temptation of Eve, the fall of man, the Judgement of Satan and the Judgement of Man.

One still has a sense, even so, of 'heavy furniture being moved around', as someone remarked of the verse. It drags at times, and in some mouths. In Noonan's it glides, as on castors.

Shaved of pate and redolent of a more benevolent Keith Allen, he is the fierce beating heart of the play. If, as G K Chesterton remarked, angels fly because they take themselves lightly, then he is perforce earthbound. Tormented by pain at his fall from grace and longing for redemption, he can only be as he is. He drips contempt for the cherubic and seraphic yes men and would rather rule, as he says, in hell than serve in heaven. His only consolation at the loss of paradise is to destroy that of man's, discomfiting their creator in the process. Even so in Eden, beholding Adam and Eve in their innocence, he is moved to pity. Satan here is a fantastic and fantastically complex character and Milton, in realising him, creates a character no doubt far more sympathetic, to us, anyway, than he intended. Gabriel, by contrast, is a one-dimensional bore.

Among the rest of the cast Kananu Kirimi and especially Christopher Staines as Adam are teriffic. Their nudity, far from erotic, lends them a greater vulnerability, and when they dress themselves, awkwardly, in preparation for their exile from Eden, after being handed a suitcase each, the scene is genuinely poignant. The play is studded, as remarked, with such touches. When Satan appears to Eve, a neon snake is briefly projected on to his back. The Tree of Knowledge is a perspex box of apples suspended from the ceiling; Satan's throne a filing cabinet whose opened drawers form a series of steps. The final scene of Adam and Eve silhouetted against a wall of light, climbing the bars of the set to, what?, is beautifully deft.