A man hangs from a gym rope as the Star Wars theme blares from speakers. He slides slowly to the ground, eyes locked on the audience in an expression of knowingly ironic self-importance. This is Lost Dog’s Paradise Lost [★★★★★], and this is The Beginning. And thus, Ben Duke cleverly and comically transforms God into a schoolboy, precariously balanced and easily able to fall.
The Almighty is, in this re-imagining of Milton’s epic, a vision of clumsy incompetence. Duke creates a graceless God, with beautifully human foibles and inadequacies. From the start, when Duke fumbles through the pages of Milton’s classic while riffing on the experience of seeing a respected stage actor misplace a bookmark at a reading, unexpectedly revealing his fallible humanity and causing the audience to empathetically root for him, the project is intent on puncturing the unimaginably grand with prosaic reality. The cosmic battle between Lucifer’s band of rebels and God’s holy angels is rendered through a showering of chickpeas, sporadically hitting the ground, to be trampled under Duke’s bare feet, as paper cut out angels flutter around him. This, like the gym rope episode, may sound ridiculous. Yet, while being comic, it is in fact beautifully poignant, and entirely appropriate. Duke’s struggle to play God is witty and inventive and highly self-deprecating.
This is a creation myth more concerned with creative disappointments, with creations that don’t quite follow the initial creative impulse. Duke ingeniously blends the Biblical narrative with his own artistic anxieties and parental doubts. God is a modern day father, harrying his children to school before the morning commute, a parent whose patience is tried, a parent who loses his cool and snaps at his offspring. Adam’s birth is relayed to the audience through a description of a awe-inspiring dance piece – one that is only ever imagined as Duke scurries from side to side, teasing the audience with flashes of dance movement, recounting what could have been had his plans not gone awry.
This is one of the strongest aspects of Duke’s terrific work – the way his dance training is only allowed to shine through occasionally. In a piece presented by The Place, this may be an unexpected virtue, and, of course, the set pieces showcase Duke’s talent to an astounding degree (the creation as a dance of juddering, quivering experiment is remarkable), yet the restraint is somehow more powerful. The heroic figure contorting in front of the audience is always quickly reduced back to a shambolic character. Desire, wrath, failure and infinite guilt are showcased, in an intensely familiar manner. Duke reduces the epic to small scale – gives it flaws and unfulfillment – and reveals something touchingly noble. Lost Dog’s hopeless God, rain-soaked and disillusioned, is ultimately the source for tentative hope and definite awe. Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me), as a brilliant dissection of creativity, is itself a near impeccable creation.