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Into Fascism and Out of Fascism: A Review of Kae Tempest’s ‘Paradise’

Photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash

Roar writer Maisie Allen reviews Kae Tempest’s “Paradise”.

Marketed as a ‘thrilling story of pride, glory and betrayal’, acclaimed spoken word artist and performer Kae Tempest turned their writing efforts this summer into retelling the Greek epic of Philoctetes at the National’s very own epic Olivier Theatre. From the very beginning, Tempest’s all-female chorus of stranded islanders provide a stark contrast to the male oriented Greek tragedy, acting as a community of sisters under the dark cloud of the now-stranded soldier Philoctetes, who had fallen from grace on Odysseus’ battlefield and was now paying the price through his own isolation. 

Portrayed by the incredible Lesley Sharp, this new Philoctetes was given a Cockney style grit, a tough exterior that slowly seemed to melt away to show his vulnerability as the play went on. Left behind by Anastasia Hille’s Odysseus a decade beforehand, Philoctetes became something of a lone wolf, diametrically opposing the choral community which had been peppered with nods to female solidarity and their additional lamentation of the trope of ‘men at war’. Ultimately, gendered performances are at the crux of Tempest’s retelling here, and one that feels starkly relevant for today’s world where images of war and violence leave the women behind and are forced to pick up the pieces of the consequent destruction. This is never made more clear than one of the chorus begs Odysseus and the late Achilles’ son Neoptolemus to take her with them on a boat which is set to leave the island towards the end of the play. The desperation of this young woman to escape the very confines of the island she has resided on for an unknown number of years forces the audience to navigate what it means to really be ‘stuck’ somewhere with no means of escape, and the references to needing documentation to leave hints subtly at the growing inflammatory rhetoric surrounding immigration and refugees in the United Kingdom. 

There are elements of the retelling which seem to exaggerate the constructs of femininity and masculinity in the context of war, with Hille’s archetypal upper-class British sergeant refusal to admit his pain or injuries playing alongside Gloria Obianyo’s rigid Neoptolemus who is so desperate to live up to his late father’s glorified reputation he will sacrifice anything for his own individual goals. He reaches his eventual breaking point, emotionally collapsing under the pressure of war and military expectations, highlighting that if war does not break you physically, it will emotionally. The chorus laments this, claiming that the world is constantly moving in and out of states of fascism and violence, with the male desires for power at the centre of this, rooted in the patriarchal construction of masculinity. The toxicity of this is what brings the intensity to the play, using male rage as a tool in which to challenge societal expectations of gender roles, referring right back to the age-old categorisation of men and women being hunters and gatherers respectively. 

It is the choral lamentations, mostly sung in true Greek tragedy style by ESKA’s Aunty, the island’s resident elder, that steals the play from under Philoctetes’ feet, providing an emotional depth to the production that otherwise would have been lost in the selfishness of the primary characters. The melodic nature of Tempest’s writing brings a modern take on Aristotle’s understanding of Greek tragedy, as they combine the spoken word with such rhythm and harmony, the stage of the Olivier in itself feels more like a concert hall, watching an operatic melodrama unfold. 

There are lessons to be learnt from Tempest’s retelling of Philoctetes, and whilst it manages to follow Sophocles’ original text to a reasonable degree, recent global events surrounding the climate crisis, the rise in populist politics, and nations torn apart by war bring the play’s narrative to the forefront of the viewer’s moral consciousness. The play advocates for a kinder world, one which chooses love and collectivism over rage and individualism, in a true politically charged Tempest manner.

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