Sunday, June 11, 2006

Oxford Stage Company - 'Paradise Lost' (Dundee Rep, 10th June)

Jesus in a hoody, shaking. At the centre of a stage kitted out like a back alley: litter, an 'EXIT' light over a door, a few classroom chairs lying discarded. Getting up, slowly approaching a red apple on the floor to the front of the stage, suspicious, hood up. Lit entirely from above, the hood casts his face into an impenetrable shadow the shape of a cobra's head, and the snake is at once within him, a parasite, and looking out, confronting the audience, daring him and us to partake of the forbidden fruit. Picking it up, the apple seems to contain an elemental and atomic force, carrying Jesus' hands in great arcs up into the air, plunging them almost to the ground, behind his back, but always returning to the space just before his mouth. Rejecting temptation, he thrusts the apple into the pouch of his top, and speaks the first lines of the play.

(Jesus in a hoody, shaking. This whole first scene is something which could have gone either way. At the interval I overheard someone saying his hand movements annoyed her, and I could see why: highly mannered, and surrounded by imagery - the hoody, the slum - which seemed a forced attempt to bed down with the zeitgeist. There was real tension and suppressed energy in those first few minutes, though.)

From the slum we were pitched into a Hell of red neon, with Satan, Beelzebub and three cronies lying stretched over imaginary racks, sizzling and writhing in the black flames which swallow light. Managing to escape, they made their way to a dank cave (can Hell be dank?) and held a council of war against the backdrop of a moth eaten theatre curtain, its lower edge trimming uneven and descending from right to left, suggesting the uneven stone roof. The fallen angels wore white, but a white smeared with mud and blood, carried over into gloriously messy eye make-up. Appealing to a mass of lesser fallen angels, these five declaimed as from a platform, fighting over the microphone, presided over by a Satan pitched somewhere between Malcolm McLaren and Gene Wilder. After hearing the arguments for outright war on heaven and cowering in Hell, the assembly decided upon a third way: they would take on idiot mankind in place of God, and tempt him from his thoughtless purity.

Strange, in this age of ours when purity so often equates to fanaticism, to find Satan tempting Adam and Eve away from it. He encourages them to give up their single minded devotion, their unquestioning obedience, and to think for themselves. Therein, of course, lies the Fall. He doesn't ask that they follow him (other than in the act of eating from the tree of knowledge). Once they have eaten, they become disillusioned, but a great deal more sensible. Covering their nakedness with some fairly bog standard business dress, they make their way from Eden to a world in which they will have to work, and in which they will eventually die. Though their former rapture is lost, they seem to have gained rather than lost by the transaction: instead of wandering from tree to tree in a blinkered ecstasy, they are now going to have to face up to their surroundings, and live.

The staging which got them to this point was frequently spectacular. Satan in mid-air, plunging and ascending through the infinite reaches of limbo, an illusion assisted by projections of rapidly moving lines on to the back wall of the stage. Satan on the Sun, assuming the guise and demeanour of a timid chaplain, and tricking the angel Raphael into directing him to Earth - an Earth represented by a glowing green ball, carried around Satan in an orbit by Jesus / the narrator, and manipulated by him in the same way that the apple was earlier on (the Earth = the apple / knowledge, it seems). Planets and stars in the background emphasised the beyond-cosmic scale of operations, and the uncertain physical construction of the Hell / Earth / Heaven setup: Satan's journey from Hell, after his millions of miles travelled, found him not clambering out of a manhole on our planet, but spat out into space, still far from his destination.

Before the interval all on stage was black, red or a tarnished white. Afterwards it was lit up with the green of Eden. The curtain rose on Adam and Eve: naked, sleeping, then waking, dancing slowly but rapturously, he lifting her around him, the two moving in innocent delight (lust had to wait until after the apple). The mood of the actors caught on surprisingly quickly, and their nakedness - though attractive - didn't titillate. Their flesh seemed just another costume, though one uniquely flattered in its curves and shadows by the gentle lighting. By contrast Gabriel, in his robe and tangibly feathery wings, seemed rather overdressed. A final delight from Satan was the temptation scene: putting on a snakeskin jacket, he held out an arm as though it were a glove puppet of a snake, and revelled and prolonged every subsequent 's' the script brought his way. An immensely vivid production.

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