The Bloomshed’s audio adaptation of Paradise Lost is a delightfully self aware, satirical take on Milton’s classic epic poem
The Bloomshed is exactly the kind of indie theatre company Melbourne specialises in: smart, innovative and criminally underfunded. Their work tends towards absurd post-dramatic staging and political reworkings of classic literature.
Their radio play of Paradise Lost, presented this year for Melbourne Fringe, is the highly-concentrated version of what they do, though, naturally, minus the visuals.
The first thing I notice is how present the soundscape and effects are. From the outset the sound design is foregrounded in a similar way to their use of visuals on stage, and it makes a lush and painterly replacement. It’s a mix of classical instruments and digital sound manipulation that fits the writing and the performance like a tailored gown.
This adaptation of Paradise Lost: The Radio Play focuses mainly on the creation of the garden and the expulsion of Adam and Eve. The fall of Lucifer is given cursory treatment. The poet Milton is writing/recording a podcast of his famous work, Paradise Lost. He talks occasionally with a bored-sounding voice that seems to come out of the staticky and tinny speakers that universally signify Sound Engineer. This allows for the occasional meta-narrative intrusion, in order to comment or give context or easily solve tricky dramaturgical problems.
The fall of Lucifer is given a neat twist, in that the Morningstar revolts against God’s commands not for his own sake, but on the part of his new creations, humans. A common trope of the Bloomshed’s work is corporate structure: the language of sales, efficiency and capital suffuse their world. Men and women, Lucifer says, were not meant to serve, which causes problems for people further up the corporate structure of heaven.
The archangel Michael, who will be the antagonist to Lucifer’s pro, gives a classic corporate seminar speech early on that lays out the corporate agenda of heaven, focused on promoting the garden of Eden as an investment opportunity. The use of canned applause in most online theatre I’ve seen so far has been a bit grating but here it’s perfectly appropriate to the scene, and it was surprising how nice it was to hear applause again. There’s also a lone enthusiastic woo in support of the concept of love at one point in the speech, which is truly epic. I really enjoyed this kind of attention to detail and storytelling in the sound.
The scenes and monologues that become ranty, filling the air with information and ideas, get a little overwhelming. It’s easy to lose focus on the narrative. This works better on stage, because of how the abstract post-modern aesthetic carries them. You’re half listening to Jackson or Brennan spew ideologically-themed word vomit and half mesmerised by the sight of them running on treadmills in giant florescent ’80s zoot suits. (I’m not sure they’ve ever done that, but it seems like the kind of thing they’d do.)
Adam and Eve make reports from Eden as if they are early investors. It’s a great place to make a home, they tell us. The linguistic flow between corporate marketing-speak and classical allusions is more successful than that clash between aesthetic and rant I mentioned before. The ideas are still present, but they don’t swamp the rest of the scene.
A sex scene between Adam and Eve is hilarious to listen to, particularly because of the confused and disappointed noises that Eve makes throughout. The distant sheep baaing at the… uh … conclusion of the event is perfect. The scene even has a classic post-coital punch line.
Meanwhile, things aren’t progressing well in the heavenly head office. Michael is insistent on the need to impress the “angel investors”, Lucifer has broken free of Hell and is intent on spoiling Paradise and the reports from Adam and Eve are becoming increasingly unhinged. Amazingly, it ends in a sword fight between Satan and Michael, that is far too short for my liking. I could have done with a few more clanging swords laced with a few oohs and ahhs.
The self-aware nods towards its being presented in an audio medium match the gestures to intertextuality, with Milton appearing as the God of the characters in Paradise Lost, though they still recognise him as the Milton of our world. Milton, as God, even intervenes to save Satan at one point, because he’s needed for the plot.
By the end, Eden has become a corporate delivery fulfilment factory, like an Amazon where Adam and Eve are the only employees. “Never shirkin’, always working,” is one of the company mottos that I catch. Satan, to undermine the plans of heaven, seeks to erode Eve’s faith by tempting her to eat the apple of knowledge. This Satan is no literal snake though, and uses a standard survey format to goad Eve into triggering the Fall of Man. Not that this Eve needs a lot of goading.
The Shed’s Paradise Lost seems to suggest the fall from the garden of Eden was for much the same reason as the Morningstar’s fall from heaven. Both are acts of free will. Lucifer makes the decision not to serve God (or that his creations will not), and Eve makes the decision to eat the apple despite God’s injunction against it. The ultimate test of the exercise of free is surely disobedience.
James Jackson makes an excellent devil as intellectual tempter, and Elizabeth Brennan is always a delight. I’ve most often seen her choose lighter comedic roles, but the depth of performance that she can muster is fearsome and is on full display during Eve’s speech towards the end. The “I will bear no fruit” monologue, which deserves to be one of those audition monologues local actors learn to stand out from the wall-to-wall Aways and Midsummer Nights Dreams, was the ground floor of the entire wacky complex finding – or at least feeling like – truth at the end of a hurricane of corporate inspo.
It does lean a little heavily on the idea that this generation will be the last generation. I share the grief-stricken acceptance of a climate-poisoned Earth, but it’s not gonna end with this generation. There are far more painful years for generations yet to come as life stops being suburban and starts being subsistence. Ours are the generations that saw the beginning, but the true end is much uglier than the increased fires and rain fall and shortened life expectancies that we’ll see.
Paradise Lost ends abruptly with Eve rejecting the garden. Having eaten the apple, she can see Eden now for the fake plastic trees and decorative lawn animals it really is. She rejects God, Milton, Michael and Satan, refusing to bring a child into the sorrow and suffering of life, a suffering which she explains to Adam with a slap in the face. Here again, the sound work is terrific. We can hear the slap coming, hear its impact resounding through a subsonic boom that not only draws our attention to the mostly visual act but also the cosmic significance of the very first human slap in the face.
This may be one of Bloomshed’s best works to date. Although it is missing the bombast of their stage presence, maybe that’s been a good thing, forcing them to focus on performance and making meaningful sense out of the writing. I did spend some time missing the no doubt striking visual affects they’d bring to this story, but only because the writing and performances are so evocative.
And the pipe and drum version of Somebody to Love by Algal the Bard at the end is a thing of joy. I spent the rest of the day with Algal playing metal classics on the lute in the background.
Paradise Lost: The Radio Play created and performed by Elizabeth Brennan, Edan Goodall, James Jackson, James Malcher, and Emily O’Connor with Justin Gardam as sound engineer and Jesus. Sound design by Justin Gardam. Presented by The Bloomshed at Melbourne Fringe.