Kae Tempest's Paradise was announced before the pandemic – with the revered writer and poet set to bring Sophocles' Philoctetes to the National with a cast led by Lesley Sharp. As anyone in the world will tell you, things didn't pan out as planned but, with a bit of tinkering, the show has finally arrived, planted in-the-round in a reconfigured Olivier.
The day after first preview we chatted to Gloria Obianyo, who plays the warrior Neoptolemus in the piece, all about the titular fallen hero stranded on an island, interrupted by an unexpected arrival. Obioanyo found the first show "kind of weird – I guess I hadn't factored in that we'd have an audience! But it was also really nice to do – to be back in a theatre, and also, from a Covid experience, to know the National has gone above and beyond to make sure everyone feels safe."
Speaking of, have measures affected the rehearsal process for Obianyo? "We've been put into "cohorts" based on who has the most interaction, so myself, Lesley, Naomi and Anastasia were put into a cohort because we interact the most.
"What that meant was, should someone in the company get pinged, we would be less at risk of being exposed. But of course, we couldn't all be over each other in the room."
But the restrictions haven't stopped the process from being deeply rewarding: "There's something great about it being an all-female company – the whole team displays a real sensitivity. We've created a space where people can be vulnerable. People can push themselves and go to the n-th degree. Being able to collaborate on different aspects of character, like the musicality and percussiveness, has been really cool."
What drew the Girl from the North Country and A Christmas Carol performer to Tempest's piece was "the rhythm and their use of language, as well as their personal politics. The piece really speaks to ideas of patriarchy and toxic masculinity, as well as what men are forced to do in order to be seen as men. A good chunk of men are almost asked to self-harm themselves emotionally before they then turn that harm onto other people. Men aren't always able to lean into their femininity, and are instead fashioned into weapons."
Furthermore, Obianyo adored how Tempest has reinterpreted the role of the Greek chorus: "They're kind of like a Gogglebox in a way. They have moments of interjection which makes you wonder if the three men can hear them. That cheek and agility really drew me in – each member of this chorus also has their own personality, they don't prop up the three main characters. It's not something you see a lot of."
Obianyo has previously appeared at Antony and Cleopatra at the theatre, but, with the stage reconfigured, things are a bit different now that show is in the round: "I don't think I've seen a show at the National in the round. It's interesting to do – there's a breadth of openness and expansiveness that I am afforded an actor – I can comfortably turn upstage because there's an audience waiting."
Paradise runs until 11 September.