Olivier, National Theatre – until 26 January 2018
As a child my dad would often read to me from an illustrated book of Greek Myths (retold and illustrated by Marcia Williams). I can still picture the often gruesome (to a six year old) illustrations of writhing snakes and gored bodies, yet these stories were amongst the most enchanting I encountered – my favourites were the stories of Icarus, Perseus and Medusa, and Theseus and the Minotaur. Tales of warring Gods, fantastical creatures, brave mortals and the contrasts of poverty and sumptuousness make for rich imaginings, but it’s the allegorical nature of these age-old myths that endure the tellings and retellings.
This theme resonates throughout Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, a modern take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. From the original concept album, to concerts, to this theatrical version, Mitchell’s piece is an excellent example of folk oral traditions, exemplifying the evolution of abiding stories and the reshaping of them to fit the times in which we live.
I came to director Rachel Chavkin’s production of Hadestown with fresh eyes, but audience members around us were evidently fans of Mitchell’s work and ardently discussed the changes brought in this version during the interval. As with McPherson and Dylan’s Girl From The North Country, Mitchell and Chavkin celebrate the universality of folk music, which seems a natural fit with the enduring and adaptable character of the Greek myths.
Onto the musical itself. In brief, Hadestown presents the story of the unearthly talented musician, Orpheus (Reeve Carney), who falls in love with the poverty-stricken Eurydice (Eva Noblezada). Meanwhile, Gods and lovers of the underworld, Hades (Patrick Page) and Persephone (Amber Grey), are having the mother of all fights, Hades resentful of Persephone’s summertime jaunts in the world of the living. A cold and harsh wintertime ensues. Feeling neglected due to Orpheus’ obsessive search for the perfect song to bring springtime back, Eurydice is lured into the subterranean industrial sweat-shop of Hadestown by the devilish God’s promise of ‘freedom’ and wellbeing. On hearing that his love has unwittingly sold her soul for a life of endless labour, Orpheus descends into the netherworld on a rescue mission.
Set between a New Orleans-style jazz club and the fiery pits of Hadestown, Mitchell has (to forge another theatrical comparison) done for the Greek Myths what Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice did for the Bible with their rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar; combining modernity and lore to make that stuffy literature once studied at school seem relevant and cool again. Mitchell treats us to lyrical odes (‘Anyway the Wind Blows’, ‘Epic’), anthemic torch songs (Wait For Me) and bombastic jazz funk (‘Way Down Hadestown’, ‘Road To Hell’, ‘Our Lady of the Underground’); musical indulgences that are a pleasure to listen to both in and out of the theatre. But nowhere is theme and format so pertinently unified than in Hades’ work anthem ‘Why We Build The Wall’. Utilising the question/answer refrain of many a folk song, Mitchell shines a light on dubious philosophical and moral diktats. The repetition and simple melody in the song creates a familiarity synonymous with folk while echoing the beating political heart of singers such as Bob Dylan (there are definite tones of ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ and ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ to name a couple). Comparisons with the isolated ‘freedom’ won by denying ‘outsiders’, an ethos championed by Donald Trump in the US and Brexiteers here, is undeniable. The fact that Mitchell’s folk song feels ingrained within our memories even when hearing it for the first time is a powerful statement that resonates with the moral socio-political allegories found in fables, myths and fairytales. Yes, it’s ambitious and Mitchell packs a lot into what is essentially a tale of star-crossed lovers, but each element is thrilling in its own right and together they create a lavish feast of a show in Chavkin’s hands.
Reflecting the laid-back jazz-club tone of the piece, Rachel Hauck’s set is an atmospheric concoction of spindly spiral staircases and balconies, reminiscent of the streets of New Orleans. The visible band become part of a living and breathing set, each adding character to the scant backdrop. Upon this stage we are greeted with suave showmanship by André De Shields’ narrator (and messenger to the Gods), Hermes. He introduces us to the musicians in a concert-like call out, a nice touch which adds flare to the already stylish proceedings. The phlegmatic feel of the first act gives way to the mechanical furnace of Hadestown in the second act. Hauck’s set rotates and sinks, illuminated by Bradley King’s bruising lighting, emitting a sense of the cavernous, sweaty pit into which Eurydice descends. Details such as these prevent Chavkin’s production from feeling like a semi-staged concert – we are engulfed by Hades’ world and the cast’s impassioned performances ensure we are deeply invested in the fates of the heroes. Despite knowing how the original myth ends, I was on tenterhooks, hoping for an alternate conclusion.
Mitchell has instigated something special, and I hope, and expect, Hadestown to evolve further throughout the years, as each new version creates its own musical and mythological traditions. ‘If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song’ – The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis expressed the sentiment perfectly, and this quote sprang to mind when, post-curtain call, Persephone implores the audience to raise a cup and ‘spill a drop for Orpheus’. The song lives on, carried by those that hear it.
Hadestown plays at the National Theatre until 26th January, 2019. The production transfers to the Walter Kerr theatre, New York, from 17th April 2019.
The company of Hadestown.
Credit: Helen Maybanks