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FringeReview UK 2021

Low Down

Adapted by Kae Tempest with Literal Translator and Classical Adviser Helen Eastman. Directed by Ian Rickson, Designer and Costume Designer Rae Smith and lit by Mark Henderson, Music ESKA and Stephen Warbeck, Movement Coral Messam, with Sound Design Christopher Shutt. Fight Director Terry King, Company Voice Work’s Jeanette Nelson and Simon Money, Associate Set Designer Catherine Morgan, Associate Costume Designer Johanna Coe, Staff Director Danielle Baker-Charles, Casting Amy Ball CDG. Till September 19th.


When Kae Tempest’s Paradise opened just days ago it seemed amongst other things relevant: edgy, aggy with a speech towards the end someone behind me groans at. Not quite sure why.

A week on it’s changed utterly: the spectacle of a Guantanamo-style island devastated by climate-change hurricanes; the collapse of just such operations as these American-supporting military arrivals are stalled in.

Finally that speech, close to the original this play’s taken from where the protagonist states: ‘I have drunk the black water’ and unleashes their bow, just as another says: ‘I’ve taken the black pill’ and shoots five people dead.

No matter this should have premiered a year ago, Paradise passes one crucial test of a classic: prescience. Quite unconsciously – and Tempest at director Ian Rickson’s behest adapts Sophocles late 409BCE play Philoctetes from Helen Eastman’s literal original – the play’s gone Greek, oracular. It’s the kind of shiver when A Midsummer Night’s Dream is staged mid-November 1989 in Berlin and ‘the wall is down that parted our fathers’ gets spoken and Berlin erupts.

There’s far more to Paradise, and trouble too. It takes though from Sophocles a moral amplitude, a richness and sticks close to the original in plot, departing a bow-string’s breadth, following a lead Sophocles gives, without his deus ex machina descent and most of all renders a nine-strong chorus far more heft than the original, elevating them to an oracular island community. This is an all-female cast of twelve, ending with one spell-binding song.

Despite eddies, it’s tautly directed by Rickson, lasting one-hour-fifty straight through, again structured like the original. The Olivier’s now in the round, so designer – and costume designer – Rae Smith scoops out a desolation of recently tempest-swept waste with a jerry-building of cave: stage-left, Philoctetes’ dwelling-place; stage-right a raised platform and scaffolding fronted by scurfs of modern detritus, plus ceooking ranges, pots, drifts of living where the chorus hang out. It’s lit by Mark Henderson in storm-light and refractive glows.

Music by ESKA and Stephen Warbeck is hauntingly memorable especially towards the end, laying emphasis on vocals with Christopher Shutt’s sound design sweeping in the isle’s sour noises.

Movement by Coral Messam converges at both the triangle of protagonists, brooding circling and occasionally striking; and the way the chorus swell to movement, glacially. Fight Director Terry King shows us why Sophocles’ original as well as Tempest surprises us – it’s all there in 409BCE and it’s still a shock. Eastman’s also classical advisor throughout.

Tempest’s nine-strong chorus is memorably individuated. Magdalena presides, a warm performance from Claire-Louise Cordwell, who emerges as the practical moral centre. On another plane, ESKA, composer with Warbeck stands remote from the others as Aunty, delivering hymns to sunrise and sunset with epic feel and incantation. It’s a highlight.

Amie Francis making her stage debut as perky, sharp-tongued but distantly-yearning Zuleika wants to go home but as Jelly reminds her, she was born here. Sutura Gayle’s wise Jelly is first to discover Philoctetes, who declares they’ve never seen her before. Several of Sophocles’ saws on gods find their avatars with Jelly: ‘Karma. It’s a serious thing you know.’ Which gets Sophocles close.

Jennifer Joseph’s Shiloh is the inquisitive, ironic, pragmatic but gentle medic. Sarah Lam’s observant Tishani makes acute rare observations. Penny Layden’s Nam, the herbalist is also funny, irreverent, mocking with skirls like ‘Moralists make the best liars.’

Kayla Meikle’s Tayir is quite young but recalls another life and yearns to go free. Unlike others, this isn’t home for her and she has a journey to go. There’s a tender scene at the end with Magdalena and others.

Finally Naomi Wirthner’s Yasmeen we learn has history with Philoctetes, in her care for him. A changed, almost woke Philoctetes finally invites her to undergo a life with them. ‘If I come with you, you won’t learn anything new’ Yasmeen rejoins.

Anastasia Hille’s Odysseus – tricksy as ever – and son of dead hero Achilles, Neopolemus (Gloria Obianyo) have arrived at Lemnos where Odysseus left ace archer Philoctetes (Lesley Sharp) near ten years ago en route to Troy when a leg wound reeked so much no-one could stand the stench. Philoctetes has bullseyes to settle and Odysseus knows it. There’s a comic shaft where Odysseus needs an oregano poultice offered by herbalist Nam ‘I’m not a fucking pizza!’

We’re treated to an American-style yessir sequence where Odysseus browbeats newbie recruit Neopolemus in how they must trick Philoctetes into coming back with them. They can’t win the war without Philoctetes’ famed archery, but Philoctetes won’t trust Odysseus. Callow and compliant, Neopolemus is also fundamentally honest with a vein of justice to shame a dead, once-sulky father, let alone this field commander. It’s Neopolemus’ journey to adulthood Sophocles and Tempest engage with most. And, in Tempest’s case, the chorus.

Obianyo’s Neopolemus is asked to character-swerve quite a bit, as in Sophocles. Eager recruit is immediately confronted with distasteful lying, alien to them and forms a slow tacit bond with their prey, Philoctetes. Obianyo’s sympathetic, after the yessir mask falls, crumbling to self-doubt.

It doesn’t end though with the twists Sophocles already lends, but brutalised training kicks in. Neopolemus even late on performs feats of nastiness (see them for yourself!) that don’t entirely square even with military training (I write as one with six years of it). Tempest has a partial answer when Philoctetes is shocked: ‘They never used hoods and cuffs and that when I was training’ to which  Neopolemus ripostes gently: ‘It’s a different war, now.’ Goes even further than that here. The dramatic point’s clear though, and true to the text Neopolemus emerges literally void of their military spleen (you’ll need to see exactly why). It’s their journey you follow. The old soldiers will never quite fade into humanity. But there’s a twist to the Sophocles plot and Tempest seizes on it. You banish late-arriving gods, see what happens next.

Anastasia Hille’s Odysseus coils with a deep alto register, occasionally sophist, often brutally realist, every winding simply to conceal an arrow-straight mission. And motivation’s clear too. For the past two years, Odysseus tells Neopolemus, later Philoctetes, men are dying. All the heroes Philoctetes knew, Neopolemus’ father Achilles whom Philocetes loved, Ajax. Nestor’s distracted. Sophistry but as battle-commander Odysseus needs Philoctetes as exit-strategy. We’ve been there, we’re doing it now. Never ends well. Hille absorbs Tempest’s sinewy prose and serpents them out. Sometimes straight. There’s a dark bravura heart to this Odysseus.

Sharp, helmet-haired, almost a medieval carving in angularity drags words across stones, savouring language for the first time in ages. Sharp’s Cockney fits with a master armourer, craftsperson, utterly sure of their groove, wise from their point, which might be limited. Unmeridianed here Philoctetes festers a leg sore less than burning fury at abandonment, left by a comrade – Odysseus – thus breaking a military code. There’s little contact with the chorus bar one. Aunty indeed is invisible. But Sharp also brings those melt moments, that sudden first leap into Odysseus’ arms, a soldier bear-hug. That’s not the sole surprise. Sharps’ power is to bring off a half-sloughed carapace, shrugged on again in a flash. Finally, a vulnerability, a trust, a prayer. Even that ends in a paradox.

What Tempest seizes on is Sophocles’ speech given to Philoctetes lamenting his posthumous existence as a ‘nothing’ as a railing proto-Timon, in over 440 words, a tenth of the play. Tempest’s is two-thirds that, reviewers have quoted chunks. It’s the heart of the play, even filleting under half throws up key themes swerving Paradise wide of the island, back to wars. For Sophocles ‘nothing’ Tempest deploys ‘emptiness’ and riffs on the spirit of it, and on Sophocles invocation of the futility of invading Troy, and PTSD: ’Can eyes of mine/seeing such things as they have seen, see this…’ (tr. E. F. Watling, Penguin):

Tempest’s own rhythms cross-grain against Sophocles’ ‘nothing’. ‘It’s just emptiness… emptiness at the expense of emptiness….’  Naturally ‘Our country’  and its leaders aren’t any good. As for fighting ‘Unholy, unhumble, unaware, unappreciative, unthankful, unkind, undone… Emptiness and echoes.’  Intervention’s summarised with unforgettable litanic repeats, a huit clos of chopped logic: ‘we end up fooling ourselves into fascism, out of fascism, back into fascism under a different name, into genocide, out of genocide, back into genocide under a different name…’

The part lifted and quoted most is Tempest’s complete swerve away: it’s thrilling: ‘the rampant oppression of people based solely on skin colour which has carved a welt into the fabric of the world… I’ve seen it.’ That part’s not Sophocles exactly; who cares?

Again Tempest’s anaphoric verse repeats kick in and again you can’t help remember it all, but here again we’re back mostly to close translation: ‘Drank the black water that gathers in the vines, I got the visions –  all the heroes fall to the superficial nothing-life… There is no grace in death, people live forever, bloated on their hatred, screaming out to close the borders, stockpile the medication, trading pixelated sexual favours with other peoples’ avatars. I’ve seen it. I drank the black water… Our country is Hell.’

That repetition of ‘drank the black water’ comes from Sophocles ‘drank the polluted water’ and Tempest twists this brilliantly into something more horrible, like the Matrix-derived black pill, the hallucinatory world of diktat and media we’re swayed by. And ‘Hell’ too is in several versions. If dramatic versions aren’t about making ancient texts sing with a rapture of distress, what the hell are they for? This one sings the week’s news. It’ll go on singing it.

This is that man-groaned moment, to which I’d say, read any translation (e.g. Watling’s Penguin), avoid being literal, you’ll get it. Sure, Tempest introduces contemporary themes but several are latent in Sophocles: railing at gods isn’t so far from what we have here.

It’s more a syntactic and character wrench. Sharp is playing gnarled Cockney craftsperson, witty in expertise: arrow-tongued, arrow-eyed, arrow-eared. No reason they can’t make such a speech and be blisteringly eloquent, especially contemplating betrayal. But the cultural dissonance from the way Sharp’s accent and agency is built up is a wrench. Earlier speech doesn’t hint at some of this and it could. Vocabulary broadens – it’s there too in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, where characters speak an egalitarian heightened verse. Class wasn’t stratified by education. Here though, Sharp’s Philoctetes – perhaps a sergeant armourer, often highly-educated – hasn’t prepared us for quite such a range. Again that could easily be hinted at.

The swerve from the original is bow-string minute, since Tempest cleaves to Philoctetes. The original’s conclusion, despite this being one of Sophocles’ most innovative and last plays, doesn’t chime with us. Tempest’s solution is both elegant and daring, a wacky peripeteia almost turning it back to a classic catharsis. It’s surely what decides them to rename the play.

Tempest finds a fresh stride in such pitch-length drama here. Working against the grain of Sophocles broadens anyone’s scope, and though Tempest will write more original drama, revisiting classics, especially some of these lesser-known Greek dramas, would be more than welcome.

There’s small registers to align the arc of Philoctetes’ speeches. And there’s very occasional drops in energy inherent in Sophocles – who refuses the ratcheting-up of classic Greek catharsis in his late phase, breaks all rules. That renders this pacing doubly tricky.

So Rickson opens out the epic of farewell, particularly to the sun in ESKA’s magnificent ‘shadows’. There’s a reason for pacing it like that, because underscoring this is the chorus’ inhabiting the island as true dwellers of the play – the originals were sailors, other troops. Both Sophocles and Tempest’s Philoctetes engages with them, is needled, is comforted. It feels more epic than 110 minutes, which tells us Tempest and Rickson get it right. Still, it’ll pick up, possibly lose five minutes, with no harm. Paradise has rightly been called ‘a sleeping hit’. I’d add a sleeping classic in the making.