Homeric levels of misery: Paradise, at the Olivier Theatre, reviewed

21 August 2021

9:00 AM

21 August 2021

9:00 AM


Olivier Theatre, until 11 September

Park Bench

Park Theatre

The National Theatre has given Sophocles’s Philoctetes a makeover and a new title, Paradise. This must be ironic because the location is hell on earth. The action starts in a dirt circle sprawling with smashed military gear where a group of plump female vagrants are waking up in a clutch of filthy old tents. They’re living on a Caribbean island which also houses a prison for migrants.

In a nearby cave dwells an exiled Homeric archer, Philoctetes, who survives by eating squirrels which he kills with his handmade bow. A committed anti-vegan, Philoctetes shuns the plentiful rice, garlic and mangos that grow naturally in the tropics. Enter two British soldiers in contemporary battle fatigues, who want to track Philoctetes down. The Brits are called Odysseus and Neoptolemus.

It’s clear at this stage that the play wants to straddle the gulf of 28 centuries between our age and the Homeric era. And the location seems to flit between the Caribbean and the Med. It’s quite a brain-scrambler. The British soldiers are keen for Philoctetes to return to battle and help defeat the Trojans with his all-conquering bow. What they don’t explain is how a modern war can be won with arrows fired by a single archer, even if he is the Olympic champion.

Philoctetes refuses to go to Troy but he doesn’t want to go ‘home’ either. Where’s home? Not Troy or Greece but a ‘land of hope and glory’, which he despises because it cultivates ‘rampant oppression based on skin colour’. Neoptolemus reminds Philoctetes that his son is keen to see him again but even the prospect of a family reunion elicits a toxic snarl. ‘My son,’ rasps the great archer, ‘was born dead like the rest of us.’

He also fears mingling socially with his compatriots, and he has a marked phobia of summer parties where parents discuss local primary schools and ‘the children swing on garden chairs and play with water balloons in the paddling pool’. It’s unclear which Bronze Age city-state this refers to. Lesley Sharp plays the grumpy bowman as an archetypal Cockney misery guts, and she gets the sour, hectoring tone just right with lines like ‘I ain’t ’ad a biscuit in ages’, which, incidentally, is one of the script’s more memorable contributions to the lexicon of English rhetoric.

The other characters are equally hard to like. Odysseus is a shifty, self-centred swindler. Neoptolemus, who specialises in battlefield atrocities, unzips his trousers and widdles all over Philoctetes as he lies unconscious on a muck heap. What about the posse of fat lady tramps who occupy the shanty town? They seem nice enough. But no. When a British officer falls to the ground wounded, they strip his body of valuables without even extending him the courtesy of dying first.

It’s rare to find a script so chock full of bitterness and misanthropy. Every character is a whinger, a swine or a criminal. Every dramatic quest is an atrocity or a betrayal. The location is a blighted squatter camp and the alternative country to which the characters might escape seems equally ghastly, if not worse.

The only highlight is Gloria Obianyo (Neoptolemus), whose authority on stage and easy, physical grace compel the eye. She’s a find. The rest would be better off in Lost Property. This doesn’t feel like a work of art but a symptom of mental illness. The show’s creators need therapy and they probably know it. At the curtain call, the rapturous crowd stood up and roared like mating hyenas. That, too, is barmy. Why are audiences at the National Theatre so keen to hail artists who are plainly saturated in loathing for the culture that supports the NT?

Park Bench is a lockdown drama which opens in real lockdown conditions. You go online to see Act I in which the ex-lovers Liv and Theo agree to meet in real life. For Act II you visit Park Theatre and witness the rendezvous on a bench.

It’s not a tryst, they both agree. Just a friendly catch-up. Liv has spent lockdown going quietly nuts at home with her messy flatmate. Theo has been busy impregnating his new girlfriend and abandoning the baby and its mother as soon as possible.

Despite this red flag, Liv seems drawn to the prattling love-rat and they bond over lockdown experiences which include attacks of loose bowels triggered by anti-depressants. Eventually the diarrhoea victims manage a hug. Then they exchange the sort of rhetoric only ever heard in plays. Theo likens Liv’s constancy and radiance to a ‘lighthouse’. But Liv doesn’t come across as a romantic beacon. She’s just a suburban mum-to-be looking for a sperm donor to sire her litter. Soap opera fans may enjoy this 90-minute jabber-festival between two prattling numpties. But watching a lockdown play at the moment feels like tunnelling back into the prison from which you’ve just been released.

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