Paradise Lost (Lies Unopened Beside Me) review at Battersea Arts Centre – ‘astonishing’

Ben Duke in Paradise Lost (Lies Unopened Beside Me). Photo: Zoe Manders Ben Duke in Paradise Lost (Lies Unopened Beside Me). Photo: Zoe Manders
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This is my first encounter with Lost Dog’s Paradise Lost. First seen a year ago at this venue, this one-man dance/theatre/stand-up work won its creator Ben Duke the Critics’ Circle award for outstanding male performance (modern). It is not hard to see why.

Clutching a well-thumbed paperback copy of Milton’s epic poem, he sets the tone from the opening, engaging the audience with excuses, explanations and apologies for the theatrical minimalism.

Duke is an attractive combination of Hugh Grant and Eddie Izzard; although much of the action and words seem random, reactive ad-libbing, I suspect that it is very tightly written and controlled. He plays all the roles from God and Lucifer to Adam and Eve, but ‘Ben Duke’ is also a character, allowing him to engage in moments of meta-theatre, in which he comments on expressive dance while dancing expressively.

He somehow manages to elide God’s relationship with Jesus and parents’ anxieties about children, hilariously depicting God trying to get his son into the car because, you know, he has to get on with making stuff. Similarly, he portrays the relationship between God and his favourite angel, Lucifer, as if it were a soap opera in which God gets pregnant and Lucifer expresses doubts that he is ‘ready’ to become a father.

Whether twitching and jerking like a palsied John Cleese or imitating Lucifer’s slow motion fall from Heaven, Duke is utterly in control of his physicality. Even the old trick of using a sock on his hand to represent the serpent in Eden seems fresh and funny – “Janis Joplin doesn’t exist until you eat the apple”. He alludes to popular culture in subtly connective ways – stripping the sock from his hand like Rita Hayworth in Gilda as he portrays Eve luxuriating in her new-found sexuality.

Like The National Theatre of Brent, he can shift tone in the blink of an eye – the madcap humour suddenly gives way to a moment of explosive anger or breath-stopping poignancy; he creates an epic battle with a red spotlight and fans, vocalising his own sound effects. Seemingly unhampered by ego, Duke delivers one of the most astonishing solo shows since Neil Bartlett’s A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep.

With little more than a wooden chair and a bucketful of chickpeas, Ben Duke extrapolates Milton’s epic in a virtuoso tour-de-force