Kae Tempest makes a stirring National Theatre debut with Sophocles adaptation Paradise, starring a superb Lesley Sharp
“If I don’t make it back and they ask what happened, make it a better story than it was“
Tales of the Greeks are seemingly never far from any stage but in adapting Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Kae Tempest has at least tended towards one of the lesser known (at least for me). Paradise pleasingly sees the Olivier Theatre remain in the round and Ian Rickson’s production strikes gold with its all-female cast, catapulting leads Lesley Sharp, Gloria Obianyo and Anastasia Hille towards the divine.
Sharp plays Philoctetes, a renowned warrior abandoned years ago by Odysseus (Hille) after suffering an injury but now finding himself back in demand to help win another war. But years as a hermit have soured the traumatised hero and Odysseus and sidekick Neoptolemus (Obianyo) have their work cut out, trying to bring their former compatriot and his illustrious bow back into the fold.
Tempest has previous with the Greeks (who doesn’t, at this point) but there’s a distinct sharpening of her work here, writing that is supple enough to pierce with its intimacy but also able to expand to fill this huge auditorium with a glorious piece of speechifying that entirely earned its press night applause as Sharp railed fervently against injustice of many sorts. And at nearly two hours without interval, we need the energy.
The use of an all-female company is also well done. There’s no gender-flipping of the roles here, thus a clear interrogation of the performative nature of masculinity comes into play but not just that. Tempest explores the seductive dangers of indulging in mythmaking, turning a blind eye to the mistakes made out of pride and pain, of trying to brush over what isolation and illness can do to a person – contemporary parallels sing out at every corner.
Hille’s uncompromising sharpness is perfect as Odysseus and Obianyo is excellent as the more equivocal but no less committed Neoptolemus. But it is Sharp who sears herself onto our retinas with an extraordinary performance full of memorable physicality and a mesmeric turn of phrase. Backed by a multilayered chorus full of its own talents, this Paradise is certainly not lost.