Radio: Paradise Lost; Guantanamo Bay Art

By Chisholm, Kate | The Spectator, March 31, 2018 | Go to article overview

Radio: Paradise Lost; Guantanamo Bay Art


Chisholm, Kate, The Spectator


It's a tough listen, Paradise Lost on Radio 4 at the weekend. In bold defiance of the demands of a broad audience, Milton's 10,000 lines of high-flown, complex verse runs for two-and-a-half hours (broadcast in two parts on Saturday and Sunday). You need to concentrate and take in every word, not be busy with something else, ears half-cocked to gather the general meaning. But, if you stay with it, the majesty of the subject, that galactic struggle between good and evil, and the mighty flow of words will ensure that all foolish thought is thenceforth banished (at least until the next Trumpian tweet or fallacious Facebook rumour).

The poet Michael Symmons Roberts, who has shaped the epic poem for radio, juxtaposes Milton's verses, set in the cosmic world of God, Satan, Raphael and Beelzebub, with the blind poet's efforts to wrestle them from his imagination and on to the page. The battle of the angels is brought down to human level by the pathos of Milton's situation in 1667, shuffling feet, blind man's stick, the way in which without sight he is forced to live inside his head, brooding on the chaos he has witnessed through the years of the Civil War.

His mythic tale about our loss of innocence in a universe controlled by God but embattled by sin might seem to have little connection with 2018. The language is cloaked in religious assumptions; the imagery straight out of medieval monster tales. And yet as I listened it did feel very much in tune with our own obsessive fears, not just of violent war and insidious temptation, but also of a Manichaean otherworld lying just beyond our cognisance.

Ian McKellen, who voices Milton, has said after recording the production, 'Being written by a blind man, Paradise Lost has special relevance for a radio audience, as it is all in the sound of the words, not in the look of the words on the page.' His vocal range and gravitas certainly pay homage to Milton's muscular rhythms, wrestling every ounce of meaning out of lines like 'The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven', and 'What reinforcement we may gain from hope,/ If not, what resolution from despair.'

His Satan is played by Simon Russell Beale, the two theatrical titans battling it out on the airwaves in an epic exhibition of vocal artistry. 'Poor fools!' sizzles Russell Beale as he glares down enviously at Adam and Eve in Paradise while plotting his next move.

The Art of Now: Guantanamo, also on Radio 4 (produced by Sarah Geis), was given heightened meaning after absorbing Milton's vision of our fall from grace. …

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