- Paradise Lost
- Written by: Erin Shields
- Directed by: Jackie Maxwell
- Starring: Lucy Peacock
- At the Studio Theatre at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont.
Satan appears to us in the form of Stratford Festival veteran Lucy Peacock – short hair, a confident strut, a colluding smirk – and sets about selling us on the Fall.
“I liberated you from the banality of bliss,” she tells us. “I released you from the beigeness of contentment.”
“I freed you from blind obedience to a psychopathic dictator, to a deranged monarch, to a bloodthirsty general, a bully, a thug." A pause.
Paradise Lost, Erin Shields’ sprawling and startling new play premiering at Stratford, adapts and wrestles with the epic by John Milton – and immediately places this magnetic devil on stage to set the audience’s moral compass spinning.
Where the blind Milton reimagined Satan as a male Homeric hero for his 17th century blank-verse poem, Shields gives us a feminist Satan fighting the patriarchy to arouse sympathies in these times. Peacock plays her, too, as a kind of tech guru, delivering a TED Talk that would have most of us eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in an instant. (An idea, floated: Are the internet and our ubiquitous access to its “knowledge” the new Apple bitten into by mankind?)
But it’s not just the devil who gets her due here. Shields’ play is a big church, circling around in perspective, considering questions of free will and sin from a number of angles (and angels) and in many different theatrical styles.
She channels Bernard Shaw in a scene where God the Father (a compellingly cryptic Juan Chioran) and God the Son (Gordon S. Miller) face off over punishment and redemption like the Old and New Testaments turned into characters.
The playwright nods at Shakespeare, too, when a flurry of true-believer angels put on their own show about the civil war in heaven as if they were the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Indeed, Raphael, who writes and directs this play within a play, is portrayed by Michael Spencer-Davis in much the same way as he played the amateur thespian Peter Quince in that comedy a decade ago
Meanwhile, in the Garden of Eden, Adam (Qasim Khan) and Eve (Amelia Sargisson) struggle with obedience versus individualism in a perfect paradise of love. It is here in the garden that the play is most in Shields' own mesmerizing voice, which burst onto the Canadian theatre scene a decade ago at the SummerWorks Festival with If We Were Birds, a Governor-General’s Award winner for drama that rewrote and challenged Ovid, a classical poet who also inspired Milton.
Adam and Eve both talk in the third person, finishing each other’s sentences and exploring their symbiosis both verbally and physically. They wear flesh-colour bodysuits, and rarely are not touching one another. (The dance-like movement is by Valerie Moore.)
Their expulsion, when it comes, is not just out of the Garden, but away from one another and into proscribed gender roles that will rule for millennia. As Eve, Sargisson finds all the heartbreak and humour in her journey from naïveté to knowledge. “Is it just me, or did my punishment seem more than yours?” she asks Adam near the end.
That’s not exactly a spoiler. Time is strange in Shields’ play – we know, of course, from the beginning that Satan, seeking revenge against God, will take the form of a serpent and convince Eve to eat the apple, and then Eve will get Adam to eat it as well (out of love and a longing to not be alone).
But we seem to exist in a theatrical world where that has not yet happened, is happening and has happened long ago all at once.
Director Jackie Maxwell has done an excellent job of riding the ruminative rhythm of the play rather than trying to force it into drama, and each time the story circles through the battle between – and interconnectedness of – good and evil, in myth or in mankind, the emotional impact and complexity of this most well-known of stories grows.
Maxwell brings all the realms of Heaven, Hell and Earth to life with the help of designer Judith Bowden’s simple set, centred around a ladder that lights up in different colours. It’s a symbol for all the ascending and descending going on, as well as that tree of knowledge that both lifts up and leads to a fall.
While Shields may occasionally detour in odd directions, she always comes back to what the story of Paradise Lost might mean today, the ways Milton’s poem has embedded itself into our views of the world and men and women beyond Christianity, and inspired individuals from Mary Shelley (whose Frankenstein was influenced by it) to Malcolm X (who read it in prison).
Paradise Lost is not just philosophical – it’s fun, too, and a large, talented ensemble helps make it so. (Sarah Dodd, in particular, has a heck of a time as Sin, trashy with a visible thong.) But it’s Peacock that gives us – as she also does as Volumnia in Robert Lepage’s Coriolanus at the Avon, and in so many other Stratford Festival shows over the seasons – that moment of edge-skirting acting that stays with you at the end, and makes you feel electricity in your brain even as you remember it after.