Olivier, National Theatre – until 26 January 2018
Hadestown’s journey onto the stage of the National Theatre – and, indeed, its upcoming transfer to Broadway – has been as tortuous and precarious as the story it tells.
Singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell wrote the folk-opera concept album an astonishing 12 years ago and it was designed as a theatre piece. Since its release, it has been extensively work-shopped and developed, and tried out in small theatres at rural towns in Vermont, before capturing everyone’s attention with an Off-Broadway run.
Like the original, Hadestown tells a version of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, where Orpheus journeys to the underworld to rescue his fiancée Eurydice. Mitchell’s close working relationship with director Rachel Chavkin has seen the production grow, mature, and evolve until it was ready for what must surely be one of the most unusual “out of town” openings a show could have before it moves to Broadway.
It has just opened at the NT’s Olivier Theatre, complete with some of its original cast, who flew over from New York for the run, and its reception has divided theatre-goers. I loved every minute of it. Tragic, unapologetically romantic, funny, beautifully staged (with the Olivier’s revolve working overtime), it takes a classic Greek myth and transforms it into a passionate and heartfelt love story about doomed young love.
The production is also remarkably prescient. It was written in 2006, long before that old devil, Donald Trump, became president. Yet it features one tune called ‘Why We Build A Wall’ in which Hades sings about the need to erect a barrier to keep out poverty and protect the innocent. The score’s references to climate change are also way ahead of their time.
Chavkin’s show is primarily set in the heady climate of New Orleans which perfectly complements Mitchell’s jazz and blues-inspired music. The result is an intoxicating, vibrant, infectious set of tunes played out in a smoky old club seemingly from the heart of Bourbon Street.
But Hadestown itself is every desolate, post apocalyptic, industrial city in America where poverty and destitution drives its residents to take desperate measures just to survive.
And it is ruled by the king of the underworld, Hades, here played by American Patrick Page with the sexiest, richest, deepest, bass-baritone voice I’ve ever heard.
It’s literally a voice from the bowels of Hell, a rumble so deep that it makes the stage quiver.
Central to the story is Orpheus and Eurydice, a pair of young kids who fall madly in love as soon as they see each other.
Orpheus is a musician so gifted that his songs can charm wild animals and cause the rocks and trees to dance.
So no pressure then for US indie-rock singer-songwriter, Reeve Carney, who is pretty much unknown in this country.
Bearing in mind that the narrative is being told largely by the messenger, Hermes (André De Shields, what a cool dude), Carney doesn’t so much drive the story as be carried along by it.
As a young Romeo for today’s generation, he’s right on the button, although, I have to admit, his vocals could be stronger as they’re occasionally lost in the vast Olivier auditorium.
Carney is constantly batting his puppy-dog eyes at the famished and the wretched Eurydice (Miss Saigon star Eva Noblezada), who desperately needs a new pair of jeans and a decent dinner, and begging her to marry him.
He’s impulsive, romantic, and wrapped up in his music, trying to write the ultimate love-song.
Head down, scribbling lyrics on a scrap of paper, Orpheus doesn’t notice that poor, pragmatic, Eurydice has had to sell her soul to the devil in order to get a square meal.
The silly girl realises too late that the move means that she must now endure eternity as a drudge working six-feet under for Hades.
Noblezada gives an engaging turn as the young wide-eyed and naive heroine and her voice is powerfully good.
When Orpheus is told what she’s done he is determined to get her back but is there any chance of that when she is now enslaved to a king?
Hadestown – above ground – brims with colour and life with Hades’ frustrated lush of a wife, party-animal Persephone, (Amber Gray, terrific, reprising the role she originated) living the summer months to the max before she is forced to return to the underworld each Fall.
The underworld is depicted as bleak, with its army of tormented workers dressed in a steam punk uniform that robs them of identity and individuality.
It’s refreshing to see the National Theatre stage a production like Hadestown but I couldn’t help thinking that a West End venue – and a West End audience – would have better suited the production.
I wish it well. I was enthralled by the life and energy by Mitchell’s diverse tunes that range from sizzling, raunchy jazz to soulful folk, and quite choked up by its shattering climax – but perhaps I’m just an old softie.
Hadestown plays in rep at the National Theatre until January 26.
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