Ancient Greek myth and tragedy find their way on (to?) the modern stage again. This time it is an adaptation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, a playby Kae Tempest titled Paradise that opened at the National Theatre, London in August 2021.
In mythology, Philoctetes was a magnificent warrior who sailed with the Greeks to fight in The Trojan War. He was bitten on his leg by a snake and the wound oozed pus and emitted unbearable stench forcing Odysseus to abandon him on the island of Lemnos. He remained on the island alone for ten years in excruciating pain until almost the end of The Trojan War when Odysseus and Neoptolemus (the son of Achilles), on the advice of a prophet, came to seek Philoctetes. He is (was?) essential for the delivery of the coup de grace to the Trojans for the Greeks to seal their triumph.
The crafty Odysseus devises a pack of lies for naïve and honest Neoptolemus to serve(serve what? Complete lies?) in order to convince Philoctetes to go to Troy. The ruse does not work but Heracles appears in the end as a Deus ex machina and tells Philoctetes that it is the will of Zeus that he go to Troy. He does.
Kae Tempest maintains the core of the story of Philoctetes living in a cave on Lemnos and being visited by Neoptolemus and Odysseus who try to convince him with gross mendacity to go to Troy. But after that Tempest takes her own path. Lemnos is not a deserted island but a refugee camp or, more accurately, a prison. The island was prosperous at one time, but it has deteriorated into a disgusting place occupied by undocumented refugees, one of whom is Philoctetes. They are the Chorus of the play. In Sophocles’ play the Chorus is made up of sailors from Neoptolemus’ ship.
There is some differentiation among the members of the Chorus but in the end, they represent a group rather than individuals. One of them, Aunty (ESKA) is a seer or prophet, and she provides extensive, some of it sung, commentary at the beginning and the end of the play.
The others are a multi-racial group of prisoners/refugees whole (whose?) appearance and names indicate the broad spectrum of the downtrodden of the earth. They are Magdalena (Claire-Louise Cordwell), Tishani (Sarah Lam), Nam (Penny Layden), Tayir (Kayla Meikle, Yasmeen (Naomi Wirthner), Zuleika (Amie Francis), Jelly (Sutara Gayle) and Shiloh (Jennifer Joseph). They are an effective group that illustrates life on the island even though I had difficulty recognizing many of them as individuals.
The thrust of the play and Tempest’s brilliance come out in the interaction among the three Greeks, played by women as is the rest of the cast. Lesly Sharp as Philoctetes gives a performance of dazzling intensity and overwhelming power. She represents a man who has lived in a cave for ten years after being abandoned by his colleagues. He is a man of great heroic stature reduced to a cipher with unbearable pain and stench emanating from his leg. He is overwhelmed with hatred for Odysseus and an all-encompassing desire for revenge. Neoptolemus spins tales and lies of rewards for Philoctetes if only he will go on the ship that is waiting for him. Spoiler alert. I will not tell you his final fate, but Sharp’s performance is worth watching with the intensity that she brings to the role.
Gloria Obianyo gives a bravura performance as Neoptolemus. He is just a youngster in the shadow and under the command of General Odysseus. He is fundamentally naïve and honest but is persuaded and ordered to lie. Dishonesty is not part of his character. He tries so hard to induce Philoctetes that at one point he seems to have become even worse than Odysseus. You have to witness the scene yourself to appreciate its power.
Odysseus, the man of many turns and wiles, comes out as that, but also pretty nasty. Anastasia Hille is simply splendid in the role as she tackles his dishonesty, intensity and desire for victory and glory.
Ian Rickson directed this outstanding production with Sets and Costumes by Rae Smith. The set emphasize darkness and the costumes are the clothes of desperate refuges abandoned to their fate.
If Sophocles’ play is Tempest’s entry into Paradise, the exit is all her own. It is done in modern dress, and it is about social conditions today. The fate of refugees, that (the?) condition of people in general, the reason for going to war and the results sought or achieved are all topics that she touches upon. Some of it may seem like excessive editorializing but one would be hard put to disagree with her views.
The myth of Philoctetes has found a brilliant and contemporary interpretation and provided some great theatre 2430 years after Sophocles won first prize with his play at Athens’s City Dionysia.
Paradise by Kae Tempest in an adaptation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes played from August 11 to September 11, 2021, at the Olivier Stage of the National Theatre, London, England and can be streamed for viewing at https://www.ntathome.com/
Lesley Sharp (Philoctetes), Amie Francis (Zuleika) and Sutara Gayle (Jelly) in Paradise at the National Theatre. Credit: Helen Murray