Interview: Ben Duke - on Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Ben Duke in 'Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)'. Photo: Zoe Manders.

Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) is a one-man staging of Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, created and performed by Ben Duke. Combining theatre, comedy and movement, it’s a journey through the story of the creation of everything condensed into 75 minutes; beginning with Lucifer’s rebellion and ending with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Lost Dog, Duke’s company, has been nominated for the South Bank Sky Arts Award for Dance (alongside Northern Ballet and the Royal Ballet). “I am delighted that Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) has been nominated for a South Bank Sky Arts Award,” he says. “To be on a list of artists that includes Benjamin Clementine (nominated in the Pop category) has made my year. I’m looking forward to being at the Awards ceremony on 5th June and will prepare both my winning speech and my losing face. Until then I will be playing God at venues around the UK…in alphabetical order: this month, Battersea, Brighton and Bristol.” We caught up with Ben/the Almighty en route…

When did you first read Milton’s Paradise Lost?
I read the poem when I was at university. It grew on me slowly. It helped that I had to study it in depth, write about it, go to lectures on it and by the end of that I was completely amazed by it. I decided first that I wanted to make a solo and then I tried to think of the most ridiculous thing to try and stage by myself. That was how I started working with Paradise Lost.

How did you go about writing the show?
The first thing was a short section that still exists in the show in which I am both God creating heaven and myself trying to get my children to school. Both of these tasks are often overwhelming (one I know to be and the other I imagine was). From there I followed Milton’s version of the story but constantly allowed myself to be side tracked and distracted by my own life. There was not really a writing process it was just trying things out in the studio and choosing the bits that felt right.

And tell us about your choice of music..
I chose music that came with emotional baggage for me. Stuff that reminded me of particular moments in my life. It’s all quite well known so I know it brings baggage for a lot of the audience as well…which is OK by me.

What’s it like being the only person onstage for 75 minutes, carrying the show on your own? Did you ever think about casting other performers?
I never considered casting other people. I did talk with Jackie Shemesh (the designer) about having a technician visible on stage who would operate some of the effects but it became clear early on that it was important that I was alone. I am playing God after all and I think he spends a lot of time by himself. Having said that I don’t feel very alone; I feel as though I am sharing a room and hopefully an experience with the audience.

What do Milton academics think of your show?
We have had some great reactions from Milton academics and students. While my use of the poem is for selfish ends I am still involved in trying to make sense of this incredible piece of literature and I think that appeals to others who have spent a great deal of time doing just that. Milton was re-telling and embellishing a well known story and, while I am not comparing my creation with his, I am doing the same.

Is it irreverent? Do you think anyone would be offended by the content?
I suppose the idea of God and Lucifer living together as a couple could seem offensive to some people. But I haven’t met any of those people and my favourite review of the work was written in the Church Times so I don’t think we are in Jerry Springer the Opera territory. I wanted to approach this serious work of literature about this serious Christian story with lightness and stupidity so that I could find its relevance.

Does the show change much from venue to venue and do you rely, to an extent, on the audience’s initial reaction?
I think having performed the show for a month in Edinburgh the show settled into a set version so what I say and how I move doesn’t change that much. But the show feels different each time and this depends very much on how the audience respond to it. The first few minutes of the piece involve setting up a relationship with the audience and how those first few minutes go effect the experience of the show for me and I imagine for the audience.

What’s next for Lost Dog?
There are two projects that so far only exist on the back of the same envelope the first one is a two handed telling of Antigone and the second is a circus version of The House of Bernada Alba with a real horse and some chickens.

Catch __Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)_ in London at:
Battersea Arts Centre, 24-28 May

Wilton’s Music Hall, 19-24 July

Full tour details:

Photos: Zoe Manders

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