Lost Dog, Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me), Wilton’s Music Hall, July 19
The architecture of Wilton’s Music Hall is a performance in itself; without anything happening on stage the drama of the place is palpable and those responsible for its restoration are allowing the impression that all those conversations and performances of the past 150 years can still be heard within the texture of its walls. What Wilton’s perhaps never heard was a reading of the 10,000 lines of blank verse comprising John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the way Ben Duke displays his dog-eared copy of the poem at the beginning of his performance, hoping nobody in the audience will have read it, only confirms what we already know: we won’t be hearing it tonight either. Once he has found his place, however, he reads the last few lines so we know the ending, in case, he smiles dryly, he fails to reach that point in his performance. Like the Cambridge Buskers playing all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies in under four minutes, Duke prepares us for the impossible: one man playing the story of Creation from Day One to the present in an hour and a quarter.
He runs nimbly through the contents of Milton’s epic — God’s creation of the world, the faltering friendship with Lucifer, Adam and Eve, the temptation, and the banishment from the Garden of Eden — with a parallel interpretation derived from his own experiences of fatherhood and creative endeavour. The empty white stage (reminiscent of the circus ring in Duke’s It Needs Horses) seamlessly reconciles the building site for the creation of the world, the locus of the Garden of Eden, and his own living room where Duke plays God as a father of rambunctious children and as a choreographer who is not averse to reworking scenes that don’t work or if the cast takes too much liberty with his ideas. In other words, he plays God in his own image.
Like a heavenly broadcast of Desert Island Discs, Duke selects tracks from God’s record collection — from early influences of religious plainsong, through Bach and Handel to Richard Strauss, Nick Cave and Janis Joplin — to accompany the emotional highlights of his story. Indeed, there are moments when the tracks are the emotional highlights as Duke valiantly battles on with his narration behind a wall of sound. No music, however, can equal Duke’s own voice box as he conjures up the bubbling, molten plasma from which he fashions heaven and earth in his workmanlike hands and with which he later orchestrates the surgical removal of Adam’s rib to create Eve.
As the work’s full title — Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) — suggests, Milton’s poem is both inspiration and pretext; Duke is constantly blurring time and place to embellish Milton’s story with anecdotal material of his own. God and Lucifer meet in a bar, exchange telephone numbers and eventually share a flat together but Lucifer’s jealousy arises from God’s desire for a child; Lucifer is not ready and leaves God to pursue his career. He shares his grievances with a group of angels who get drunk together and cause a violent disturbance, falling into the state of hell. God feels he has to start again and creates Adam (Duke in flesh-coloured tights with a fig leaf whose appearance in his living room traumatises one of his daughter’s friends). Adam is the contemporary male pondering questions of identity and masculinity and whose predilection for masturbation gives God the idea of creating Eve. Adam and Eve meet in a dance studio and fall in love, thinking they can make a living in contemporary dance. The relationship breaks down and Eve walks out into the garden. The snake (a talking sock on Duke’s hand) is a shrink who suggests Eve takes a therapeutic bite of the apple; feeling refreshed she returns to Adam and persuades him to take a bite. God is waiting to push the stop button but as Adam bites into the apple Jesus mistakenly head-butts his father in the balls while playing a game of tunnel. Creation can have its ups and downs. God grits his teeth: “What’s wrong with my fucking children?” Cooling off under a shower of water, he projects a bleak outlook for the world: bodies falling from a burning tower; the Ark; slaughtered lambs; a room full of childrens’ shoes; the nativity in straw and horse shit; Jesus preaching, his betrayal by Judas and his crucifixion. “There’s been a mistake,” cries God, seeing his son on the cross. “That’s my son. Can you take him down? Do you know who I am?” The shower stops. “Can I hold him?” asks Duke in the birthing room. “He looks limp; is he alright?” God and the new father share their vulnerability but while Milton’s God rues the outcome of his creation, Duke is in heaven with his.
God’s final track? The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It’s a rousing and suitably conflicted finale to a richly textured and finely crafted re-telling of the Creation.