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THEATRE Tempestuous Trojan triumph

WILL STONE sees a thrillingly contemporary version of a Greek classic from one of our top poets

National Theatre London

A WASTELAND greets audiences to poet Kae Tempest’s adaptation of Sophocles’s Philoctetes, the Greek archer who slew Paris at Troy.

Rae Smith’s set is a barren island landscape of dust where only Philoctetes’s hermetic cave can be seen. It’s the home of a chorus of refugee outcasts who both set the scene in songs and monologues, and are an onstage audience reacting to the drama that unfolds between the three protagonists as they interact with them.

Enter Odysseus (Anastasia Hille) and Neoptolemus (Gloria Obianyo), who have come to the island to fetch the abandoned Philoctetes (Lesley Sharp), whose mastery with the bow of Heracles can help them win the Trojan War.

But Philoctetes has been left for dead on the island by Odysseus years ago due to the stench caused by a wound on his leg. Knowing to be Philoctetes’s sworn enemy, Odysseus hatches a plan for Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, to gain his trust and persuade him to return to the war while Odysseus hides out of sight.

Embodying Philoctetes to the hilt, Sharp’s tragic hero is equal parts terrifying madman, vulnerable rogue and a feisty, combative force to be reckoned with, who commands attention with her every rugged word and agile move. It would be difficult to imagine a more accomplished performance.

Praise also to Hille, whose Odysseus is so commanding, warrior-like and soldierly that she proves Tempest’s point that there was never any worry that an all-female cast could not entirely personify these decidedly masculine roles. And Obianyo is the perfectly morally conflicted Neoptolemus, stuck between military duty and a growing fondness towards Philoctetes.

As can be expected, Tempest’s powerful poetry runs through the text like a modern-era Shakespeare — injecting their trademark humour and sharp political wit into the dialogue at every turn, much to the delight of the audience.

Every ill of the modern world is touched on, from climate change to the refugee crisis and racism, while the battle glory message of Sophocles’s original is cleverly turned into a hard-hitting anti-war message.

If there’s one criticism it’s that the production, although only one hour and 50 minutes, is in need of an interval, as its relentless energy leaves one feeling slightly pummelled by the end.

Yet one thing is for sure — Paradise will be remembered as one of the National’s triumphs of the year.

Runs until September 11, box office:


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