On ‘Paradise Lost’

“Farewell, happy fields
Where joy forever dwells: hail horrors, hail 
Infernal world, and thou profoundest hell 
Receive thy new possessor: one who brings 
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost (1674)
Poster for Paradise Lost (dir. Joseph Winters), at The Old Shipwrights House, London, 2022

I realised that this is the first opportunity I’ve had to discuss a live performance of any kind in my blog, and the art form that takes this prize is not a play, a concert, a gig, a dance or ballet, or even a piece of performance art. The performance to be discussed is, in fact, is the staging of a new opera: Paradise Lost.

This is indeed an opera, a four hundred years old and grandiose art form, but this one was written brand new this year, and its production features many contemporary stylistic techniques. Combining the old with the new even further, the opera is adapted from Milton’s poem Paradise Lost from the 17th century (the same century opera itself was developed), a work which claimed epic storytelling back from pagan ancients for the betterment of good, civilised English Christians. In another juxtaposition of old and new, I bought a ticket to this performance through a random Instagram ad, which I think is the first time a targeted Insta ad has ever worked on me. Turns out all they had to do was mention Paradise Lost and I’m sold – especially when I still just squeeze into the Under 30’s cheap seats.

I am such a fan of Milton’s poem that this isn’t even the first Paradise Lost adaptation I have seen on the stage. In 2018 I caught a work-in-progress adaptation while I was working at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, a dance piece called The Shadow of Heaven by Al Seed, which took a limited scope of the narrative but was effective in atmosphere and staging (read a review here).

The set for Paradise Lost (dir. Joseph Winters, 2022)

The staging for this production was, as can be seen above, incredibly atmospheric, with the water of the Thames luminous and sparkling with reflections of star-like city lights; the stage itself raised up off the ground, surrounded by trees. The production’s lighting design was very sympathetic to this unusual setting, simple and effective, bright reds and golds. The performers also carried heavy torches which they shone like searchlights into shadowy corners and into each other’s faces when one of them was singing. This lively punctuation of the action was very effective.

The opera was mercifully short, which I was thankful for as obviously Paradise Lost itself is 12 long books of dense poetry, and operas are also known themselves for generous show durations. So a nice hour and twenty felt very civilised. The libretto, which I was able to read along on my phone excitingly, was very close to the original poem, just cropped to the point. The singers also had lovely clear voices, so not a syllable was lost on me. They contrasted singing with speaking for dramatic effect as well, such as the prologue of the beginning and the human couple’s first words after the fall from Paradise.

There were some weak points to the production, despite the dramatic overall effect. I was not impressed with the costumes: the performers portraying the angels and demons wore simple linen trousers in earthy tones but their top halves could only be described as drunk mother-of-the-bride falling through a nursery dressing up box. A lot of cheap sequins, bits of neon netting, and quite simply a bit over designed. It would have been more impactful (and just downright classier in my opinion) to have continued the minimal linen theme of the trousers throughout. These shapes are timeless, and could either be very ancient or futuristic. That interesting duality of old/new in the production could have been lifted by this choice, to do less not more.

More successful, however, were Adam and Eve’s costumes that were the cuts of normal clothes (a wrap dress, a short-sleeved shirt and trousers) but made out of effervescent sheer fabric that lightly clung to their bodies, and through which their utilitarian underwear could be seen. It was these shimmery outer layers that were shed upon their expulsion from Paradise, leaving the couple cold and exposed in only their sad, grey little knickers.

For being an opera, the music itself felt a bit illustrative. You wouldn’t be able to hum a tune after, which is a bit different from most operas where the text of the libretto plays second fiddle to the musical score. Indeed it did feel more like a minimalist film score. I was also not convinced by voice of Satan, very high and warbly as a soprano when contrasted with the meatier voices of the demons. However I loved the casting of a queer/trans singer, and Ella Taylor physically and aesthetically did the job, especially when prowling around the outside of the green lawn with the white picket fence. The graceless state of Satan, cast out into a hostile new world, has some interesting parallels with a trans identity, transgressing gender normativity.

William Blake, ‘Adam and Eve’, watercolour on paper (1808)

Despite saying I was going to discuss a live performance, this blog is quickly going to descend into just talking about all the things I like about Milton’s poem.

I have two favourite moments in the story of Paradise Lost. The first is Satan spying on Eve for the first time and his monologue describes a real moment of pathos, of loss. “I, myself am hell.” His speech is really so sad; it is full of depth, longing, realisation of truly what has been lost and what is going to be lost. The second is Adam choosing to eat the forbidden fruit in order to stay with Eve. These two moments really describe the core tension of the story: the question of choice, free will. Satan equivocates about his decisions but, though tortured and tender in his arguments, he consistently chooses the most destructive and toxic action possible. As the saying goes, he doesn’t ever stop digging himself deeper and deeper. I happened to read the below description of a schizophrenic mindset by R.D. Laing recently, which I thought explained Satan’s thought processes at this point in the story pretty well.

“If the patient contrasts his own inner emptiness, worthlessness, coldness, desolation, dryness, with the abundance, worth, warmth, companionship that he may yet believe to be elsewhere, there is evoked a welter of conflicting emotions, from a desperate longing and yearning for what others have and he lacks, to frantic envy and hatred of all that is theirs and not his, or a desire to destroy all the goodness, freshness, richness in the world.”

R. D. Laing, The Divided Self (1960)

Eve’s motivations, to me, make absolute sense. If you are subjugated and subservient, created to be a plaything for someone else (like Satan I suppose) sometimes all you can do is act destructively, just to act, just to be autonomous. Like Frollo’s line in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, you can choose a magnificent prison, but it remains a prison nonetheless. How can you have a truly free choice until you have seen both sides? Until you have truly seen the world?

The world is queer, dark, rich, mysterious. A prison cell is light, small, safe.

Adam makes a choice that he doesn’t want to live in Paradise without Eve. They also choose to go through life together, to walk through the wastes of mortality together. Eve does not bring sin into the world, Satan does. And Satan’s original sin is envy; an envy born of entitlement, arrogance. The first sin, the original sin, is envy. As depicted in the opera, his is still an incredibly potent psychological portrait easily recognised in oneself, or in others.

I think it’s possible that Milton, though with the purest of intentions and a lot of theological rationalisation tried not to, he kind of became an Eve, or maybe a Pandora. Through his work, he opened the jar of fascinating characterisation, queering religion and theology, blowing open narrative potentials, humanising Satan, complicating women; also, just writing a fucking great story. A beautiful story, and what beauty comes through tragedy? True beauty is lost. No one cares about ‘Paradise Found’; we care only for what is lost.

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