David Farr, in contrast, sets out not to give a straight account of the myth and theology so much as to bring out the more abstract and universal themes of loss which he sees underlying the poem. He pulls this off in barely two hours, and does so even with a certain amount of brilliance, but at some cost to the story he really ought to be telling as well.
Ti Green's set design makes for a stage of cages and cubes. Hell has a selection of infernal-corporate office furniture, Adam and Eve's bower is a large Perspex cube onto the roof of which Satan clambers in his first abortive attempt to coax Eve to eat the forbidden fruit... even the tree of knowledge itself is a clear plastic box filled with apples. (Mind you, at Northampton it's a kitchen table with a sole apple sitting on it.)
This sounds like director's theatre; perhaps even more so when I mention the video wall at the back of the stage, showing Ben Hopkins' out-of-focus images of descending stairways for Hell and time-lapse montages of assorted flora for Eden. But it works, largely through a clutch of first-rate performances.
Stephen Noonan's Satan is insidious and devious rather than (forgive the pun) fiery; he clearly rigs the early demonic debate as to what should be the devils' strategy. For his transformation into the serpent in Eden, a moment's projection of a snake onto the black shirt beneath his rumpled, stained (and bewinged) business suit suffices to establish the convention. Simon Scardifield gives solid support as Beelzebub and the heavenly angel Uriel, and Christopher Staines and Kananu Kirimi are magnificent as Adam and Eve: unselfconscious in their nakedness, even in the twin lovemaking scenes (an aerial dance of pre-lapsarian bliss and an altogether sweatier engagement after the Fall), they are especially clear and nuanced in their moods and thoughts, to the extent that one finds oneself listening to their changing tones of voice and reading their faces rather than necessarily grappling with the language.
In a final image of haunting beauty, they climb up the video wall as Hopkins' blurred image of what looks at first like falling feathers against a white background gradually gathers focus until it's just identifiable as motorway traffic. Adam and Eve are leaving Eden, but entering the world we know. This is immensely potent, as I say, but it's not Milton. The Son of God, whose promise of redemption is the nearest the poet gets to a happy ending, is scarcely even explicitly identified. Yet for all this, my preference is for Farr's version over Goold's: it's more striking imaginatively, and leaves us with a more telling, impressionistic legacy of what in the most metaphysical sense is the cost of living.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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