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Theatre Review: Paradise

Kae Tempest's Paradise can only stir up a storm in a teacup

Lesley Sharp (foreground) can’t save Kae Tempest’s unwieldy Paradise. Credit: Helen Murray

National Theatre, London, till
Sept 11

Only the National Theatre would ever dream of staging something like Kae Tempest’s Paradise. It’s a vast, unwieldly piece of writing – supposedly “a new version” of Philoctetes by Sophocles – played out on a vast, unwieldly set.

The story focuses on an operation to bring home an AWOL soldier who, is living in a remote cave with only primitive tribeswomen for company. It’s the sort of Apocalypse Now-style story that would normally be oppressively masculine, but it isn’t here as its three protagonists are all played by women.

Lesley Sharp enjoys herself enormously as Philoctetes, channelling Michael Caine in Alfie. The soldier charged with bringing “him” back alive is played by Gloria Obianyo, a world-weary soul under the command of Anastasia Hille’s ruthless Odysseus. Sharp’s comedy act had me chuckling but it throws off balance what should really be a very sad tale. The tribeswomen – Sutara Gayle etc – don’t help much by interrupting the proceedings with songs and monologues.

Ian Rickson’s self-indulgent production inevitably drags towards the end, and Tempest, presumably aware of this, clumsily crow-bars in a speech against isolationism that got a round of applause from the first-nighters, who worked out soon enough that it was really an attack on Boris Johnson and Brexit.

There was a guy sitting beside me who spent the whole night sighing, looking at his watch and texting. At the end, he was among the first on his feet to give it a standing ovation. A classic National Theatre moment: an expression of gratitude, I’ve no doubt, to the theatre for simply existing and the show simply ending

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