Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Eden Plot Reprised : Paradise Lost at the Bristol Old Vic

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Eden Plot Reprised : Paradise Lost at the Bristol Old Vic

Article excerpt

The Eden Plot Reprised : Paradise Lost at the Bristol Old Vic

Marvell's fears-and Dryden's best endeavours-notwithstanding, it might have seemed a safe bet, three hundred and thirty years on, that the stage history of Paradise Lost would have remained a blank. Unpredictably, however, 2004 saw the simultaneous arrival of two new and speedily acclaimed stage versions of Milton's epic, one at the Bristol Old Vic, and the other at the Royal Theatre, Northampton.

At Bristol. David Farr's spare and powerful production of his own adaptation of Paradise Lost begins, like Milton, in medias res, focussmg intently, first on the fallen angels, and then on the subsequent fall and judgement of mankind. This streamlined version, which plays for only one and three quarter hours, is drawn mainly from Books 1, 2, 4, and 9, and stays faithful to Milton's text, using the original language almost exclusively. However, a few passages are relocated, while at times, too, lines are necessarily redistributed among the characters, since Farr dispenses with the poem's narrative voice and eschews a chorus. In this, incidentally, he diverges both from the rival Northampton version, which employs a narrator, and from Milton's own draft outlines for a dramatic version of the work, all of which specify a chorus of angels.

In an informative interview, Farr conjectures that Milton finally abandoned his early plans for a play, in favour of an epic treatment of his materials, partly "because the vision was getting too big." By contrast, his own instincts as adaptor and director-he is now, also, Joint Artistic Director of the Bristol Old Vic-were clearly to aim for succinct brevity, intensity of focus and maximum, direct, dramatic impact, unmediated by any narrator. Above all he "wanted to make the story theatrical ... to take the book firmly out of the library and onto the modern stage" and to enable "people to see these mythic places-Hell, Eden-not as vague zones but as specific places in a story."

This approach is well served by his thoughtful, inventive and elegantly compelling production. If Dryden's 1674 "opera" version of Paradise Lost remained unperformed because of the potentially ruinous costs of its elaborate staging requirements, today's Bristol production (though doubtless expensive) appears relatively modest, even minimalist in its decor, and costumes. Locations are convincingly specified, but never crassly concretised. Throughout an often witty juxtaposition of the contemporary and the traditional points up both the universality of Milton's themes, and the perennial relevance of his concern with the struggle between humanity's desire for freedom, and our equal need for some kind of moral structure in our lives. …

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