The devil is in the details

Not even the fire curtain is safe in Ben Stones' clever reimagining of Milton's epic poem
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The Independent Culture

When Ben Stones won one of the Linbury biennial prizes for stage design in November with his proposed sets and costumes for a stage version of Milton's Paradise Lost, his reward was the opportunity to realise his vision. The graduate of St Martin's School of Art makes his set debut at the Royal Theatre, Nottingham, in an adaptation of Milton's tale by Ben Power. "It is a small space in this beautiful all-Victorian theatre," says Stones, "but Paradise Lost demands that we make it look huge - people would expect it. Milton's poem is a terrifyingly huge piece of literature."

The epic poem tells the story of the failure of Lucifer's and his fallen angels' revolt against God, their subsequent exile to hell, followed by Satan's great journey through deep space to the newly made planet Earth and the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden, leading to the Fall of mankind. But how do you represent this on the stage?

Perhaps surprisingly, Stones' solution draws on the work of two modern American artists: the photographer of suburbia-made-strange Gregory Crewdson and the realist painter Edward Hooper. "At first the set appears to be a bare space," says Stones, who has re-painted the theatre's fire curtain, which originally had angels on it. "Now it looks scorched, as if there has been a big fire in the theatre - to represent the great fires of hell. But just as you might be expecting something epic when the curtains part, all you see is an exit door backstage that is scattered with costumes and chairs."

This "backstage area" is, in fact, part of the set design. Darrell D'Silva, last seen in Franco Zeffirelli's Absolutely! (perhaps) at the Wyndham Theatre, plays Satan. He emerges through a trap door, "from hell", and flies on wires amid lots of smoke, into the black expanse of Chaos. "Then he grabs on to a golden ladder and the universe appears below, with the moon and stars built into the backstage wall with fibre optics, a huge cosmos with a gloss black floor."

At the end of Act I, Satan walks calmly to the exit door that leads to Eden. As he opens it, the audience sees lush green countryside beyond, and he turns round and smiles. After a 20-minute interval, the set transforms into a wild forest with real trees. An element of humour is present, Stone says: "When Satan becomes a snake, he puts on a snakeskin jacket."

The play has also proved an extraordinary challenge for the rising young poet and translator Power, who has undertaken the task of adapting the text. Originally written as a stage play in the mid-17th century, the poet and republican John Milton was forced to rework his verse tragedy following Oliver Cromwell's abolition of theatre. Power, whose recent adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's epic Tamburlaine the Great was staged at the Rose Theatre, says the "scenes leapt from the poem fully formed".

Paradise Lost opens at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, on 30 January (01604 624811)