james debate
james debate

Friday 16 November 2018

Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Written by Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin
Starring Eva Noblezada, Andre De Shields, Reeve Carney, Patrick Page, Amber Gray
Theatre National

hadestown national theatre orpheus euridice eurydice persephone hades greek mythology

If the big test of a new musical is how doggedly the songs stick in your ear over the following days, then Hadestown is a smashing success. Anaïs Mitchell's reinterpretation of the mythological tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has proved so successful since its early days as a travelling show and concept album that it has spawned three theatrical productions in just two short years. The off-Braodway production came first, followed by the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. Now Hadestown moves to its biggest venue yet at the famed National Theatre in London.

For those who can't quite recall their prep school classics lessons: Hades is the God of the underworld, who abducts and subsequently marries Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Demeter (the Goddess of agriculture), in her despair, causes nothing to grow on the Earth. Hades eventually allows Persephone to return to the Earth for half of the year, during which time vegetation can grow again, bringing us the Spring and Summer. Elsewhere, Orpheus is in love with Eurydice. In the original text (this part is changed here) Eurydice dies and Orpheus journeys to the Underworld to convince Hades to let her return through the power of his music.

Mitchell's adaptation transposes these tragic events to a New Orleans jazz/blues musical. If the concept at first sounds like a novelty, it's surprising just how naturally it fits. Blues is after all a genre of music that was born of social oppression and economic depression, and Mitchel has aptly spun this old tale into a surprisingly modern parable about inequality and climate change.

The separation between Hades and the world of man is now framed as a struggle between the haves and have-nots. The Underworld is presented as a cold and prosperous metropolis, as compared to the impoverished overworld devastated by the environmental impact of Persephone's absence. Instead of dying, in this version of events Eurydice is driven to the underworld out of desperation. These themes clearly bring additional relevance to the old text, particularly against the thematic setting of Louisiana, a state commonly ravaged by hurricanes and still deeply beset by social and racial divides.

It's brought to life through some excellent staging and a set design that elicits the faded glamour of a New Orleans townhouse. You can feel the weight of the cast-iron facades and worn stucco. Meanwhile good use is made of the Olivier theatre's trademark configurable stage, the choreography enlivened by rotating floors and raised platforms as needed.

As mentioned, all of this is told through some very catchy music, with strong performances throughout most of the cast. The clear standouts are the only two cast-members to have featured in every stage performance: Patrick Page as Hades, and Amber Gray as Persephone. Gray's charismatic, growling Persephone in particular absolutely steals every scene in which she is present, fittingly in light of the narrative context which surrounds her character.

Unfortunately, Hadestown has a bit of a lead problem. Whereas for the most part Hadestown commits to its deep-south blues aesthetic and musical style, the two lead characters look and sound like they could have walked off the set of High School Musical. It's surprisingly jarring, and just doesn't seem to fit well with the rest of the show. Eurydice I can forgive because the actress has a very strong voice, but the casting of Orpheus is harder to justify.

We are told that the Orpheus of this setting is supposed to be this inspiring, revolutionary figure, who creates such a stir with his music and passion that Hades allows him to leave just to be rid of him, but rather than this rousing and charismatic individual we get a remarkably bland guy in skinny jeans straining his voice in a cringe-worthy, pretentious rasp. In this context Orpheus is meant to be this divine rock star figure, think John Lennon starting a revolution, David Bowie bringing down the Berlin wall, Dillon, Morrison, I'd even have taken a Garfunkel... instead what we get is reminiscent of the lame college roommate that we all probably had at some point who sits in his room crooning along (poorly) to his guitar. It's hard to buy this portrayal, and it breaks the immersion of what is otherwise a fairly slick production.

So not a flawless production, but these are minor criticisms of what is otherwise a hugely entertaining show and one of the best new musicals I've seen in a while. I began this review by saying that the one true yardstick of a good musical is how the songs stick with you, and in that sense I can comfortably predict that Hadestown is a show that will linger on in the memory.

Newer Post Older Post Home