Royal Theatre, Northampton
Opened 3 February, 2004

Perhaps it's because we now seem to doubt earthly powers and authorities as never before,  but there has of late been an upturn in theatrical examinations of matters heavenly and how they fit in with our own lives. The example par excellence is of course the National Theatre's grand two-part treatment of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, but even the protagonist of David Almond's Skellig was an angelic being.

And now comes the battle royal. Rupert Goold at Northampton and David Farr at Bristol each had the idea of adapting Milton's Paradise Lost for the stage, the first major such adaptation in the epic poem's 350-year existence. When they found out about each other's plans, rather than collaborate, they continued independently, even (by the look of it) playing "chicken" by scheduling the same official opening night.

Goold's production is the longer by half an hour, and the more direct in its approach. Ben Stones' design is more conventionally theatrical: he even uses a pair of Tallescopes, those mobile scaffolding-ladder arrangements used when rigging stage lights and suchlike, to serve as the gates of Hell. Ben Power's adaptation is geared towards translating the poem to the stage without particularly skewing its interpretation or imposing any high concept. He does, though, make restrained use of Jonjo O'Neill's character The Son (of God) as a narrator-figure to bridge gaps between direct speeches in this tale of the downfall of Satan and his provocation in turn of the fall of Adam and Eve.

It has long been acknowledged that Milton's most compelling character is Satan; the writer was, as William Blake put it, "of the Devil's party without knowing it". Here, too, Darrell D'Silva gives a charismatic rendering of the chief of the fallen angels: one can see the full range of Satan's feelings, the progression of his thoughts, and the passion of his convictions. O'Neill is similarly lucid as the Son in his two major scenes of contention with the Father (the disembodied voice of Tim Pigott-Smith) over whether justice should be tempered with mercy.

Goold's cast also succeed admirably in making Milton's often lapidary verse sound at least half-natural as speech. For me, though, it's this very directness which attenuates the impact of Christian Bradley and Leah Muller as Adam and Eve in the second half. They cut recognisably human figures, but miss the exaltation or intensity of their status as the wellsprings of the entire race. Nevertheless, Goold's production is an honourable and adroit one, even if it doesn't succeed entirely in Milton's professed purpose "to justify the ways of God to men."

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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