Local Canberran. Reluctant member of the Smashed Avo set. Lover of the classics.
A classic comes to life on stage
Had someone told me last week that I would spend my Australia Day at the opening night of Paradise Lost, a one man performance of John Milton's epic, I would have told them they were dreaming. The prospect of anyone re-enacting this poem about the Fall of Man, some 350 years after it was written, is itself a daunting one. To then learn it would be performed in the Japanese Butoh style made it even more unnerving. This, I would have said, is far beyond my comfort zone.
And can you blame me? Milton's Paradise Lost is some 10,000 lines long. Milton wrote of the Angelic War and Satan's banishment to Hell, of God's creation of the Garden of Eden and of mankind, and of Satan, as a serpent, leading Adam and Eve into sin. Butoh I learned is a style of movement developed in post-World War Two Japan, where performers are covered head to toe in white chalk and use their faces and bodies to depict the text. Hardly a nice light show for a Thursday night I thought.
I know now I need not have been worried. Bare Witness Theatre Company and Christopher Samuel Carroll, performer, creative director and, as we learn later, a Milton fan, put on a truly powerful performance, and one that will have me thinking for many days to come.
Much of this can be attributed to Carroll himself. You cannot take your eyes off him. Sure, this is partly because he is the only thing on stage – the performance space is only a couple of metres wide and is surrounded by blackness – but he draws us to him too. His delivery of Milton's text is perfect. His depictions of Satan and in turn Uriel, Adam, Eve and God are perfect. They are not forced or caricature-like as I feared but subtle and clever and the transitions between characters well timed.
The tale itself is gripping. Lest Paradise Lost be "wrongly abandoned to academia", Carroll created this one-hour adaptation – far more accessible – focusing on Milton's depiction of Satan. And it's fast-paced. We meet Satan waking up in Hell, we watch him manoeuvre his way into Heaven, and we witness his conversation with Eve that ultimately led her to temptation and the forbidden fruit. Remember Milton's poem is an epic in the literal sense of the word. With only one hour and one man to work with, Carroll manages to make this story an intimate one. We eagerly await Satan's next move and witness his internal conflicts while retaining an awareness that this is part of a much larger struggle between good and evil.
I'm still not sure exactly what Butoh is but I can tell you it's the perfect fit. Carroll's movements and contortions mean we watch Satan fly through the gates of Heaven, wings zigging and zagging in anticipation. We watch him crawl into the body of the serpent. We see and feel his anguish, every ounce of breath he takes and every bit of pain he experiences. The thought of anything more on stage – a prop, another person – seems now superfluous and distasteful.
The use of lighting is also perfect. When Satan addresses someone directly, he is bright with two large, strong shadows behind him. When he soliloquises he is darker, softer, sensitive. When the light is on the audience it's like we're being put on notice. This is our turn for reflection. A simple tool but one used to spectacular effect.