Review by Anna Hollingsworth
Remember, this man is not our friend, he is our weapon. OK? So, we treat him like we treat any other weapon. Clean him, store him, transport him safely, take him into battle. And that’s it.
Odysseus sums up the core mission to Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles and a young soldier keen to prove himself: they’re to retrieve the master archer Philoctetes — who Odysseus dumped on a remote island a decade ago — trick him to board their ship and bring him back to win their war. This mission statement lies at the core of Paradise, Kae Tempest’s “cover version” of Sophocles’s Philoctetes, as much as it does in the original. Tempest, however, layers the basic premise with sharp contemporary commentary and a distinctive punchiness.
Tempest’s paradise is an oxymoron, an island that has been ravaged by civil war and tornadoes. It now serves as a dumping ground for prisoners and unrecyclable waste from all over the world after the government struck a deal with foreign investors; in this paradise, pigs are not to be eaten because of their radioactiveness.
The play is set on the shore, where the chorus is made up of a group of people, unable to leave, living their lives at a meagre campsite. At the opposite side of the beach is a cave where ex-soldier Philoctetes’s dwells, leading a hermit existence, submerged in his bitterness against Odysseus and tending to his injuries from his last battle ten years ago. However, the status quo is shaken when Neoptolemus turns up, in a scheme to convince Philoctetes that he, too, holds a grudge against Odysseus and that if they return to the mainland together, they could have their revenge.
As in the original, the central conflict in Tempest’s version grows from the dynamic between the two men as they try to negotiate their return. Philoctetes flips between his drive to achieve revenge and a deep-seated doubt about what he could achieve if he went back to his old life. It’s a powerful moral question as such, but in Tempest’s Philoctetes that inner turmoil takes on a contemporary form: “How much you wanna bet? I go back. That’s my life. Fame and fortune? You’re joking aren’t you? It’ll only be a matter of months before they say I’m fit for work and I’ll be out on the high street handing out fucking CVs — twelve and a half years state-sanctioned murderer, ten years living in a cave killing squirrels. My customer-service skills are, as you can imagine, not quite up to scratch.” It’s as if Sophocles meets Ken Loach; this is social commentary as powerful as I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You.
Later in the play, a monologue by Philoctetes takes the commentary to more abstract levels, exploreing the disillusionment with the same society and the inequalities that come with globalisation: “I’ve seen the future. There is no grace in death, people live forever, bloated on their hatred, screaming out to close the boarders, stockpile the medication, trading pixelated sexual behaviours with other people’s avatars.” Social media, vaccine hoarding and dating apps take a blow from the bow of an ancient hero — and Tempest hits their target in brilliant style.
That punchiness is further highlighted in the ironic exchanges that Tempest throws in to diffuse the tension. When one of the beach-dwellers instructs a wounded Odysseus to apply garlic as an antiseptic and oregano as an antibiotic to his bleeding wound, the soldier hits back with “I’m not a fucking pizza, am I?” The chorus also bring down the sometimes pompous ideals of the soldiers by providing a running commentary. When Neoptolemus boasts about what he is prepared to do for his country, the chorus deadpan: “All went a bit Rambo for a minute there didn’t it.”
What, though, is particularly masterful is how Tempest can switch away from these dialogues and whip up sequences that resemble a spoken word performance in their lyricism and beat: “It’s just piles of muck and thorny scrub./ That drags the land from beach to cliff./ Plants like knives, and rocks like sand./ And snarling vines that fool your hand./ Broken arrows, poisoned tips./ Best be careful. Dead if he slips.” The language of this play is a pure joy to read.
Where the play stumbles is when it becomes too sincere and pompous with nothing to counteract it. There are moments when the message veers into the territory preaching: “Treat violence with violence and rewound the wounded and rewind the memories and refill the emptiness and refuel the terror and replay the rage and it will keep you as small as the battles you wage.” Sequences like this fall desperately flat and make me wonder where the lyrical, deadpanning writer disappeared.
Also, while the conflict between the men is the carrying force, and rightly so, it deprives other storylines from the development they deserve. In a couple of short scenes, it emerges that Philoctetes has been having a near-romantic relationship with Yasmeen, one of the chorus. That implication works fine as exactly that, a subtle hint; yet out of nowhere, it’s built into a goodbye scene that seems clunky at best, completely disjointed at worst.
It’s a shame, for otherwise this is a masterful reworking of a classic. Ignore that, though, and Paradise, in all its bleakness and despair, is a paradise of a read.
Anna is a journalist and linguist.
Kae Tempest, Paradise (Picador, 2021). 978-1529045260, 80pp., paperback original.
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