Photo/ Danilo Moroni

Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me): Interview with Ben Duke

 The Boar Arts sit down with Ben Duke, to discuss his upcoming performance of Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) at Warwick Arts Centre. We discuss playing God, dance and crushing on Satan. Buy tickets here:

What first compelled you to bring Paradise Lost to the stage?

I studied it at uni and I kind of loved it, and it stayed in my head as something quite theatrical. I imagined doing it in a much bigger way, I imagined putting it on as some huge piece of theatre or even film. But as I got older my relationship to it changed and I thought that I wanted to make a solo piece, and thought of the most ridiculous thing I could think of because [Paradise Lost] is so huge, so full of these big stories and big ideas, I liked the impossibility of doing that as a solo.

Paradise Lost is a compulsory text for our first-year English students; what was your own experience of the text and why do you feel it is still worth a read?

I don’t think I had an immediate connection with it, it’s not a page turner. It’s so weird in that it’s a compulsory thing, without having to read it, without having to write about it, I don’t think I would have gotten so into it and I am grateful for the fact that I had to read it. I’m playing with this idea that I am assuming most people haven’t read it, but the majority of people will know of it and the story of genesis, but many will have not actually read it. It’s such a dense text and we aren’t used to that density of language now, it requires work and that work brings rewards. It’s not something you read on holiday.

But what theatre can do so successfully is offer ideas, and then our imagination does the rest.

As a one man performance, you embody both God and Satan (and everyone else); why is this so essential to the performance and what made you choose this form?

It felt like you had to go one way or the other, with a huge production and cast, and I thought that maybe there was something interesting about the other end of that scale; where you are conjuring this thing out of nothing. You’re relying on people’s imagination, because obviously when you read that poem he’s using incredible word, but the images form in our head. That’s an interesting part of live theatre, our imagination has to engage. Also, we are so used now, to every kind of special effects from watching film, so it’s hard for theatre to compete. But what theatre can do much more successfully is offer ideas, and then our imagination does the rest. It takes us on this journey through suggestion and word. It requires a belief in the audience’s imagination to visit these places and create these scenes, even though I know what I am offering onstage is quite minimal.

The performance contains interludes of dance (for which you’ve been awarded 2016 National Dance Critics Award for Outstanding Male Performance and 2016 Nominated for South Bank Sky Arts Award for Dance) Why is this a medium that you have chosen to communicate with the audience?

In my work in general I am interested in how dance and word operate; how we receive them and how they sit alongside each other on stage. There’s definitely this idea that dance can do things that words can’t, and vice versa. But there are certain bits where the epic-ness is overwhelming, and at that point maybe we suggest something with body try to offer images to give space to the imagination to the audience. Milton uses incredible words, and a lot of them, and you can spend a lot of time reading and describing his words, but maybe the body can do that in a different way. Also, in the poem he spends a lot of time talking, he struggles with the difference between the body and the idea of spirit and spiritual creatures. He is writing about these religious and mythical creates and he manages to make them believable and human. [in the performance] I confuse God’s life with my own, trying to drawn various parallels because when I read this poem I believed these characters, they became real.

(here I admit that Satan is the biggest of my literary crushes and obviously Ben laughs because I am a mess)

He [Satan] is so human in his mistakes.


What was your experience of higher education and how do you think this has affected your career in ‘The Arts’?

It had a big effect on my choices. I know things have changed, I studied English lit to start with and then went to do a postgraduate degree at drama school, and then did another degree in contemporary dance. I spent a long time being a student (as my bank manager reminds me – who pointed out that I had been a student longer than a doctor or an architect). It felt like a zigzagged path as I found my way through these things; from literature, which led quite naturally to drama and wanting to be an actor, but then I took this kind of sideways move into movement and the absence of words. When I left dance training I started to piece it all back to together, and while there’s still an interest in dance and movement, there’s also a real love of stories and words, and more traditional ideas of theatre as a storytelling medium.

Without those three years of the in-depth study of literature, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to take on such big idea.

When I was doing literature, I felt lucky. I was really into it, and I was looking around me at people who had chosen subjects for maybe vocational reasons or because they lead into careers more obviously, but they were spending three years doing tedious things. I was getting to read paradise lost and novels, and this was my work, there was something hugely inspiring about it. I wasn’t very good at thinking ahead; I wasn’t thinking where’s this going to take me or what’s my career going to be, I was just enjoying that immersion in the subject and trusting that it was all going to work out. I know that it’s easy to say [that] when I can look back and it all makes sense.

I had a good time with higher education and that all feeds into what I do. Without that English degree, I would never have done a version of Paradise Lost, and it’s been the most successful thing I’ve done because I drawn from all of that. Without those three years of the in-depth study of literature I wouldn’t have had the confidence to take on such big idea. It must be difficult to be doing that [now] because I was going through a time of relatively good arts funding. when I was at Newcastle I was seeing these amazing shows at the playhouses, and all of that was making me believe that there was a career in this world [of the arts].

I am a mixture of all of these things; I am an English student, I trained at drama school and dance school and all of the experiences of my life since then

If I were to ask you to assume your role as an omnipresent and omnipotent being, is there any advice you could give to aspiring performers and creators at university?

More than most careers there’s no career path, there’s no particular way to go, but the thing that I have learnt (it’s probably going to sound like proper hippy stuff) but in working out what it is you want to do and working out what is interesting to you. What I want to put on stage is ‘myself’, without sounding incredibly egotistical. What I want to see on stage is ‘people’; the best artists make me feel like this person has shown me something of themselves, which doesn’t necessarily mean something of their autobiography. There’s something incredibly rich in that. I spent a lot of time thinking I wanted to be a dancer, and I had an image of what kind of dancer I wanted to be, but it took me a long time to realise that wasn’t actually my idea, and that it was somebody else’s work I was trying to imitate, and that was incredibly difficult thing to do. As soon as I worked out that I am a mixture of all of these things; I am an English student, I trained at drama school and dance school and all of the experiences of my life since then, that is who I am. I wish I had gotten to that realisation a bit earlier.


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