Famous for its ambitious subject matter and massive scale, Paradise Lost, Milton's epic tale of good, evil and everything in between doesn't sound like easy fare to turn into a one-man show. But Ben Duke of Lost Dog Dance has done just this, and it is a thing of wonder.

© Zoe Manders
© Zoe Manders

Very little of the original text is used in Ben Duke's imagining, but he does kick things off by reading out the last few lines, “in case we don't make it to the end”. Duke primarily plays the role of God, also doubling up as narrator, Lucifer, Adam, Eve, himself, and a chicken. His version of God is a well-meaning, slightly bumbling sort of fellow who tries his hand at creating perfection (he creates flawless angels, but then gets a bit fed up with their incessant singing). He creates universes just to see if he can, but is always aware of his propensity to mess things up, or for things to get slightly out of hand.

This piece is predominantly a spoken word piece, however the essence of dance is ingrained in Ben Duke's skin, so even when he doesn't move, he isn't moving with such precision and energy that it becomes enthralling. When he does move, it is even better. God's dance of creating heaven is a perfect example of Duke's physical humour, and the ease at which he can show entirely abstract concepts in a completely logical and relatable way. In this section, dancing to Bach's air on a G string (well, the Hamlet Cigars advert version, naturally), he moves as though held up by a coat hanger – his body has too many angles, and he practically turns himself inside out with the effort of creation. This image ties in beautifully with the many layers of reference in this work: Ben Duke the creator of dance, allows us to witness his effort in trying to imagine utterly new movement, which is, of course, nearly impossible. The piece constantly acknowledges the difficulties of being a “creator” of any kind – father, artist, deity. In this strange moment of dance they combine into one, and we root for this hapless God who dad-dances his way to making universes.

Paradise Lost (Lies Unopened Beside Me) has many very funny moments, such as the point when God asks for Lucifer's number in a nightclub. Duke imagines Lucifer as effortlessly cool but a little patronising to the over-keen and nervous God, and it is embarrassing, touching and ridiculous all at once. Duke's tale of getting upset with mocking laughter from small children and accidentally making them cry is funny and slightly sad, reminding us of the secret vulnerability of so many adults who endeavour to look cool and in control.

© Zoe Manders
© Zoe Manders
The piece strays inevitably into darker territories; Lucifer's fall is visually striking, with Duke's arms and legs seemingly floating in slow motion to a sparse rendition of Claire de Lune. As amusing as it is to imagine God and Lucifer moving in together, when Lucifer falls, at God's hand, it is a heartbreaking and completely human portrayal of love, found and lost.

The themes of creation and fatherhood are explored through their joy, but also the terror and vulnerability that comes with them. Duke draws on his own experiences of fatherhood, and shows us the fear of bringing life into a world that we have little control over, and imagines the pain and horror of harm coming to that life. Through this, we start to see God as human as the rest of us, just trying to make something beautiful and not get his heart broken in the process.

Ben Duke's fantastic and moving version of Paradise Lost forces us to face the unpredictable and often horrifying aspects of humanity, but like Adam and Eve standing on the edge of Eden, we embrace it all anyway, because there is always joy, and a chance to start again and create something new.

*****