Kae Tempest’s first play for the National Theatre is a vivid riff on Sophocles’s 2,500-year-old play ‘Philoctetes’ that may slightly befuddle anyone expecting something more in line with Tempest's acclaimed solo albums, or their knotty, propulsive poetry.
Yet this is hardly Tempest’s first theatre rodeo: though it’s been a while now, eight or so years ago they were probably better known as a playwright than anything else. And they know what they’re doing here: for all its undoubted quirks, ‘Paradise’ is essentially fairly faithful to the story of ‘Philoctetes’.
The tale is very much in the second tier of fame when it comes to Greek tragedy (which is what it is generically, even if it’s not really very tragic by modern standards). Philoctetes, played by Lesley Sharp with a geezerish intensity that slightly veers into Pete and Dud territory, has been stranded on an island – a beautiful, driftwood set from Rae Smith, spilling outside of the Olivier’s revolve – for a long time. In fact, ever since his former pal Odysseus left him there, wounded. Now the wily Odysseus – a delightfully obnoxious Anastasia Hille – is determined to bring his erstwhile comrade and his mad bow skills back into the fold, and has deployed Neoptolemus (Gloria Obianyo), the son of the late Achilles (it doesn’t hurt to know your ‘Iliad’ tbh) to lure him off the isle.
The heart of ‘Paradise’ lies less with any of its trio of male protagonists, but rather the chorus, a wistful, long-suffering group of largely older women. It is not made explicit exactly who they are: natives? Exiles? Refugees from the Trojan war? But Tempest has taken the care to name them individually and craft distinct personalities. Much of the play consists of their dialogues, which essentially revolves around them looking out for each other as they grow older on the harsh island. Where the men broadly act from self-interest, the women are a community. They have allowed themselves to fade from the world where the men still strive to master it. But they come out the more sympathetic party – their ‘paradise’ is each other.
As for those men: personally I struggled a bit with Sharp’s performance. Although we can palpably feel his rage and fear, her Philoctetes is so broad in his quavery old man Cockney-isms he really does feel like something from an old sketch show. And while Obianyo plays Neoptolemus as a calm, collected, but underneath it all scared young man, Hille’s gravelly-voiced Odysseus is pure cartoon villain. In an all-female cast, it’s very clear who is male: masculinity is an elaborately mannered performance. But I couldn’t find much of an emotional way into Ian Rickson’s production via its leads – thank the (Olympian) gods for the chorus then.
‘Philoctetes’ is a strange play as it is, without the catharsis of the ‘big’ tragedies. Tempest and Rickson’s oft-whimsical reimagining of it tends to add to the strangeness rather than subtract from it. But if it didn’t totally click for me, two hours of exile with these oddballs is never anything less than interesting.