Last Updated on August 14, 2021
Tempest at the National
Firebrand poet and playwright Kae Tempest’s reworking of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Paradise, has just opened on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage. Tempest won the Ted Hughes award for their ground-breaking medley of street poetry, rap and classical myth in Brand New Ancient.
Paradise, directed by Ian Rickson, is anchored by a triumphant gender-swapping central performance by Lesley Sharp that channels the feral anger and cynicism of a young Johnny Rotten into an attention-grabbing tour-de-force of self-pity and righteous fury. The cast is all female which brings a fresh twist to the play’s themes that encompass the futility of war, class conflict, male aggression, female solidarity and government control. Tempest’s prose is both idiosyncratic and muscular, bursting at the seams with a vernacular vitality, but the outlines of the classical myth still remain; the overarching themes of betrayal and revenge are made universal with references to contemporary political contexts bringing this classical drama into the present day.
Set and costumes are designed by Rae Smith who has used the expansive Olivier stage in the round creating a dramatic wasteland with Philoctetes’ ‘man-cave’ raised on one side and a female refugee camp on the other. It is this diverse band of homeless women who populate this female space working together both as a set of individuated female voices and as a classical chorus to represent peaceful co-existence and co-operation. This acts as a powerful counterbalance to the treachery and aggression of the male protagonists.
Part of this rag-tag female collective is Auntie, played by Mercury Prize nominated artist ESKA, who bookends the production with haunting songs written by composer Stephen Warbeck.
The story of Paradise tells of wounded warrior Philoctetes who had been abandoned on the island of Lemnos by Odysseus, who is played by Anastasia Hille as a bluff product of the military machine and who would have been played by Trevor Howard in a 1940s British war movie. 10 years later Odysseus returns to the island. The Greek military top brass wants Philoctetes and his totemic bow back in their ranks to inspire a final push against the Trojan enemy. Odysseus is accompanied by the young recruit Neoptolemus, son of Achilles who is portrayed as an honourable boy. He is tasked with convincing the embittered and badly injured Philoctetes to return to the front.
Gloria Obianyo delivers a convincing portrayal of Neoptolemus’ journey from naïve innocent to a more nuanced understanding of the moral issues confronting the other older ‘male’ characters whose intransigence and hubris leads to their downfall. There is a warmth and humour in the writing and performances that accompany the more overtly political rhetoric, and this combination provides a riveting theatrical experience that is the closest we have in contemporary British theatre to the Shakespearean model.
In Tempest we have a new kind of national treasure, articulating a ‘woke’ aesthetic in a way that gives the next generation a credible voice in contemporary theatre and makes us all question ourselves.
Paradise runs from 4th August – 11th September 2021, tickets are available from the National Theatre Box Office
London SE1 9PX
Looking for something different? We also recommend Carousel, showing now at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre