John Milton’s epic poem relating Lucifer’s fall from Heaven and the expulsion of Adam and Eve, told by one person in a 75-minute show? The premise seems like a big ask, even before the bumbling, nervous performer loses his place as he prepares to recite his first extract.
It’s a feint, of course. Despite all the tics and nerves, Ben Duke is warming up his audience by pretending to be incompetent. In reality, he is anything but, weaving an interpretation of Paradise Lost with events from his character’s own life, interspersing them with interpretive dance moves that portray everything from the creation of the universe to Lucifer’s nine-day fall into Hell.
Making fun of fringe theatre’s minuscule budget (a blackout is achieved by asking the audience to shut their eyes, while a descent of boulders is replaced by the release of a clutch of chickpeas), at first the total comedic tinge Duke gives to everything suggests that this is to be an affectionate abbreviation, in the vein of the Reduced Shakespeare Company or Potted Potter. But when the initial relationship between God and Lucifer is portrayed as two nervous individuals exchanging numbers outside a nightclub, it starts to feel like something more original.
At times, Duke’s recitation of large set pieces – most notably the battle that leads to Lucifer’s fall – is deliberately drowned out by the backing music (an eclectic mix from classical bombast, such as Also Sprach Zarathustra and Zadok the Priest, to lighter pieces by Debussy and works by Nick Cave and Janis Joplin). This allows Duke’s choreography to express the madness and carnage of battle far better than any monologue could achieve.
The further Duke progresses into the tale, the more serious and sombre his mood becomes, the comedy flecked with sober moments transforming into a tale of a God who feels betrayed by Adam and Eve’s eating of the fruit. His concluding moments, relating humanity’s progression after the expulsion, from Cain and Abel through to the Crucifixion, is very much played straight and is both humbling and moving.
Truth be told, anybody new to Milton’s epic poem is unlikely to come away from Duke’s show feeling more informed about it – but they will feel entertained. And, as much as anybody experiencing the first, chaotic moments of this piece might not believe it, they will feel moved and spiritually uplifted.
Runs until July 23. wiltons.org.uk