Paradise Lost (dir. Joseph Winters) Back

The Shipwright, Deptford’s new theatre, was the venue for Paradise Lost, an opera composed and conducted by Bertie Baigent, and adapted, directed and designed by Joseph Winters. The libretto was a cut and edited version of John Milton’s epic poem, preserving the power of the language and emphasising its poetic beauty as it was sung to music performed by a symphony orchestra of strings, woodwind, and percussion. Throughout the opera the music shifted, sometimes almost imperceptibly at first, between moods and tones that captured the complex range of character perspectives: magisterial tipped into threatening and claustrophobic; sentimental and loving into something darker, tinged with jealousy. Parts of the narration were spoken by Ella Taylor, who played Satan, and Juliet Wallace, who played Eve, hauntingly delivered over their microphones whilst they were hidden from the audience. For the most part, however, the text was converted to first person and sung in character. It was this sense of the poem’s figures, not as archetypes but as complex individuals, which drove the performance and made it hard to look away.

The stage for Paradise Lost was a circular, raised platform, covered in artificial grass and surrounded by a white picket fence. It was a wonderful representation of the troubled paradise that Eden is for Eve, trapped in a narrow, seemingly picturesque life that sees her own desires unmet. Taking place outside, the audience could see the river Thames flowing behind the stage, and the Isle of Dogs lit up on the opposite bank. Milton modelled Pandemonium, the capital of Hell, on his contemporary London, and this live backdrop, with boats passing, seemed very appropriate. The effect of modern ‘Pandemonium’ was augmented by recordings of recent radio news, broken up with white noise, which were played before the opera began — as if to ask, is this wild, violent world better or worse than Eve’s picket-fence prison?

As in Milton’s poem, Satan is identified as ‘he’ throughout the opera, although promotional material used they/them pronouns, in line with the pronouns of performer Ella Taylor. The queerness of this Paradise Lost, and the ways sexuality was used to reveal the imperfections of Eden’s ideals, was deeply compelling to watch. In this adaptation, as Eve and Adam reminisce about how they met, Eve catches sight of Satan across the circular stage and cannot look away. The attraction there, the wordless chemistry between the two, was electric. Re-ordering the sequence of events from Milton’s text, it is after this meeting that Satan debates whether they can repent. As Satan watches over Eve as she sleeps, Eve becomes central to Satan’s refusal to return to God. Next to the solid, rather dull piety of Adam (brilliantly performed by Oskar McCarthy), Eve and Satan embody a momentous and captivating story of taboo desire. When Satan tempts Eve to eat the fruit, there is no prop apple or mimed eating: instead, the two kiss.

This kiss, the forbidden action which will see Eve banished from Eden, has all the passion that her interactions with Adam have lacked. And as for how it corrupts her, there’s something of Lilith in what Eve becomes when she returns to Adam. Her persuading Adam to eat the fruit too sees her pin him on his back, kissing him brutally as he writhes beneath her, seemingly torn between desire and fear. Adam’s later blame and resentment of Eve gains a fascinating complexity in this usurpation of his masculine authority: in fleshing out Eve as a character in this adaptation, Adam’s own flaws are compellingly revealed.

Throughout the production, the angels (played by Rozanna Madylus and Steven Fort) do not enter the picket-fenced stage, but rather address Adam, Eve, and Satan from outside of the circular Eden, pointing hand-held torches in their faces as they do so. As the night darkened, the use of these torches became much more menacing: what seemed in the first moments of the play to be a symbol of heavenly light became openly interrogatory when the last of the daylight had gone, further emphasising the sense of Eden as more of a prison than a paradise.

Milton’s text, though it portrays perhaps the most obvious binary of good and evil — God and Satan — has long attracted attention as something more complicated, and more compelling, than that ultimate opposition. The attraction of Satan as a character, the extent to which he inspires pathos, compared to the authoritarian God who casts Adam and Eve out of Eden, has been picked over by scholars for centuries. This adaptation leans into this grey morality, with an added, contemporary attentiveness to which identities are especially subject to vilification, and how that vilification is handed down from positions of power. Baigent, Winters, the cast and crew, created, with this production, a work that brings Milton’s Paradise Lost and the modern world into conversation, in an utterly captivating night of theatre.