Olivier, National Theatre – until 26 January 2018
It’s certainly not family-panto time along the glittering Thames riverbank: what with Martin McDonagh’ gross-out-silly Dark Matter downstream at the Bridge, and the NT’s buffet of Labour politics, infertility, Edgar Allen Poe and World War I now joined by this portrait of a modern Hades. A dark smoking hell of labouring slaves under a tyrant King swallows young love and foils a melodious rescuer. With the Orpheus myth it can’t end well. “It’s a sad song,” says the gorgeously dapper Hermes, shooting his cuffs and flashing his lurex waistcoat, “but we sing it all the same.”
So they should, and not just as he consolingly suggests because one day a bad world might come good instead. Bluesy, folky, beautifully paced and musically satisfying, it is a treat: touching without sentimentality and with enough topical bite to startle without hammering the point. My jaw actually dropped when the basso-profundo King Hades (oooh, Patrick Page, what a show-stealer) closed the first half with his minions in a chanting, thundering hymn “Build the Wall! To keep us free! The enemy is Poverty! Because they want what we have got…” Anais Mitchell’s concept album, developed and directed as a stage musical with Rachel Chavkin, wowed New York two years ago and should make a legion of whooping new fans for her here. Like me.
From the start it grips and intrigues: Rachel Hauck’s set is moody, shadowy, a bar-room with a balcony above and seven musicians disposed around – though others, notably Orpheus himself and the three elegantly scornful Fates in floaty grey chiffon – pick up instruments and play at times. Amber Gray as a marvellously slutty, drunk, high party-girl Persephone tears it up gleefully on her six months holiday from being Hades’ dutiful wife below, capering amid the street-dance ensemble, keeping up the energy.
Reeve Carney’s youthful Orpheus and Eva Noblezada’s Eurydice are scruffy, ordinary, ineffably sweet as they fall in love. And hungry. It’s a time of grinding poverty, a New Orleans 1930 world. Which is how Eurydice is suckered into signing up with King Hades, tyrant of the underworld slave kingdom, where gloomy labourers in dungarees and goggles work, “there ain’t no rest for the weary soul, Hades keeps you toiling.” Orpheus finds his way down by playing a song so beautiful the stones of the very wall weep, and through despair and hope gets inexorable Hades to melt briefly: “What has become of the heart of that King, Now he has everything?”
Staging all through it is wonderful: fluid, startling, great use of smoke and shadows and a brilliant triple revolve with a circular pit into which characters sink or rise to dominate. Orpheus’ terrifying walk , trying not to look back , is tense and nightmarish, the three rings turning like the circles of hell itself. I hadn’t expected to enjoy it this much. But I did .
box office 020 7452 3000 to 26 Jan