Devastatingly Milton: Ian McKellen’s thrilling, trippy retelling of Paradise Lost

John Milton dictated Paradise Lost to assistants. 350 years on, the poem still sounds like it was meant to be read aloud.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Having gone completely blind in his early forties, John Milton dictated Paradise Lost, line by line, to assistants. First published in 1667, the poem sounds very much like it was meant to be read aloud. In a new adaptation (by the poet Michael Symmons Roberts), Ian McKellen plays Milton narrating his greatest poem in English, about the fall of man in Eden (2.30pm, 24 March and 3pm, 25 March). Scenes of confrontations between the various dark angels as they look bitterly upon humanity (“like to us but lesser in power and excellence”) all take place to the sounds of bubbling lava and distant screams, as though this were an aural Hieronymus Bosch, with unspeakable creatures wearing plague doctor masks lurching semi-broiled from steaming cauldrons.

McKellen sounds uber-Gandalf, especially when relishing such phrases as “of man’s first disobedience” and “the ways of mortals”. There’s even a confrontation with some dire creature heard panting sinisterly as McKellen notes, “black it stood as night, fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell”, which cannot but call to mind his Gandalf facing down the fiery Balrog in Tolkien’s Mines of Moria (“the orcs themselves were afraid and fell silent”). It’s impossible not to find all this a thrill: the slightly trippy feeling, especially. But best is Simon Russell Beale as Satan – so rational, so persuasive. Perfectly Miltonic. “He may sound like a very progressive and likeable educator,” warned the theologian René Girard, succinctly, of Satan in Paradise Lost. SRB approaches the part absolutely like this and is disorientatingly brilliant, especially in the way he implies, with every sigh and nuance, that if we were only to submit to his way we would feel liberated. Free from the burden of experience.

Perhaps this all just sounded particularly pregnant to me – and ominous – since I learned that some employees of the BBC were now being sent on “unconscious bias” courses. Policing the unconscious? Oh wash me, baptise me, let me be born again with the stain of history washed away. And now we shall be virtuous. How supremely, how devastatingly, Milton. Never was a poem so needed. “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special