Like Voldemort after six months with a personal trainer, his sinewy near-naked body a ghastly pallor leaving only the eyelids seemingly stained pink, Satan appears before a small hushed audience in the deep belly of Perth’s State Theatre Centre of WA.
His commanding host is Irish-born actor Christopher Samuel Carroll, a graduate of Jacques Lecoq’s École Internationale de Théâtre in Paris. Here, in Paradise Lost, he delivers for us a captivating rendering of perhaps the greatest epic poem of mortal and immortal sin ever put to word.
Carroll’s physical presentation is astonishing. Twisting and agile, with a dancer’s grace and dramatic poise, he inhabits the bodies and characters of the plot – the wrathful, bitter downcast angel; his faithful legion, similarly smote; his daughter, Sin and her son, Death; as well as defiant Eve and her tormented partner, Adam.
Word-perfect, the rich and ringing delivery of the verse is similarly impressive. Without falter or slip, we are carried through with eloquence and fiery spirit this ‘dilation of a moment in Genesis,’ as the New Yorker puts it. The Devil Carroll embodies is not a caricature of spite either, but worthy of our empathy, and what’s more suffused with qualities that might even be considered noble under other, less dire circumstances. The bad guy is always blessed with charisma, isn’t he?
The stage lighting performs a crucial service in the realisation of character and dramatic tone, washing the actor’s powdered form in hues eerie and sublime. The keeper of the gates is a torrid hellfire red, his fiendish smirk brimming with chiaroscuro shadows. Entering into the mouth of the asp, Satan’s grotesque, writhing body is drenched with sickly green.
And at the close of the final scene, the lights go out entirely, leaving us with the pale glow of Adam’s outstretched form, contemplating the endless suffering he and all his progeny must endure, but for the rebellion of an overgrown rib.
Yes – Adam’s misogyny and patronising tones of the original are intact. Here, he is no less than a controlling brute, tending towards violence even in the garden of paradise. When Eve proposes to leave his side for just an afternoon, Adam’s staying hand becomes a vice-grip on her arm, which she must forcefully remove.
Radical though he was for his time, Milton was never a feminist. The message that it was woman’s ‘weakness’ (or desire for independence) that incurred humanity’s eternal punishment – and the idea that Adam joined her in it only out of hopeless love – is rendered darkly. 400 years on, how little some things have changed.
Dictated in the 17th century by the then blind John Milton – survivor of the plague, political polemicist, and who was eight when Shakespeare died – Paradise Lost remains the longest poem in the English language. This version is of course abridged; to hear it in full, we would have had to stay in the theatre some time longer than the 50-odd minutes enjoyed.
Carroll does great justice to this renowned work, which has its 350th anniversary this year. To the bawdy, sin-sensational Fringe World extravaganza, it offers a classical complement, uniquely aflame.
Flying Locomotive Engine Room – State Theatre Centre of WA, William Street, Perth
Performance: Thursday 2 February 2017 – 9.15pm
Season continues to Saturday 4 February 2017
Information and Bookings: www.fringeworld.com.au
Image: Christopher Samuel Carroll in Paradise Lost – photo by Richard Lennon
Review: Kate Prendergast