Tuesday 27 November 2018

Theatre review: Hadestown

It would be unfair to say it left me cold, but the latest American musical to be heralded as the next big thing certainly left me a bit nonplussed. Anaïs Mitchell’s 2010 concept album Hadestown has been steadily gaining a following as a musical in the last couple of years, and having been performed off-Broadway and in Canada it’s due to open on Broadway next year. This is the production, directed by the show’s co-creator Rachel Chavkin, which opens first in the Olivier for what is essentially a big-budget try-out. A meandering rewrite of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Hadestown takes its musical style from New Orleans folk and jazz, and has accordingly transplanted Greek mythology to something like Depression-era Louisiana and a bar run by narrator Hermes (André De Shields.) The seasons are determined by the movement to and from the Underworld of its queen Persephone (Amber Gray,) but in recent years something’s gone wrong, leaving the world mostly in winter, with occasional bursts of summer but no autumn or spring.

Orpheus (understudy Adam Gillian) is attempting to write a song that will restore the seasons, which distracts him from the hungry Eurydice (Eva Noblezada,) the girl he’s instantly and obsessively fallen in love with, and wants to marry immediately except hang on he’s got to do something else over here.

While Orpheus is distracted by important Douchebag With GuitarTM business, Hades (Patrick Page,) bored with his relationship, is attracted to Eurydice, who is hungry. He asks her to sign her soul away to him and spend eternity in the Underworld where she won’t be hungry, and she agrees because she is hungry. Eurydice is hungry, is what I’m saying, the show is at some pains to clarify the fact that she is hungry and that all this mess could have been avoided with a sandwich. When Orpheus eventually notices that the woman he’s completely devoted to has been dead for several months, he goes down to Hadestown himself to get her back.

I may make fun (because there’s not so much plot holes, as holes with the odd bit of plot in them) but this is a stylish production with a lot of charismatic turns, not least of all from Page as the ridiculously deep-voiced, occasional villain Hades, a cross between Trump, Karl Lagerfeld and Paul Hollywood with the voice of Leonard Cohen thrown in for good measure. Mitchell’s music is strong but does lack a real breakout number until the end of Act I provides us with two in a row: Orpheus’ “Wait For Me” followed by Hades’ "Why We Build the Wall." The serendipity of a musical with a song about political isolationism called "Why We Build the Wall" premiering in 2016 must be one of the reasons Hadestown captured people’s imaginations in the first place.

But while a lot of musicals have started life as concept albums, this one shows its roots more than most, in a story that could be described as taking the Orpheus myth in a lot of different directions, or less charitably as not knowing which direction it wants to take it in. Despite the mid-20th century setting the first act largely plays the gods and heroes literally, with the rift between Hades and Persephone affecting the seasons and Orpheus’ song helping restore them. But after the interval the Underworld is less of a literal afterlife, Hades more of a right-wing politician than ruler of the dead, and when he does appear supernatural he’s conflated with the Christian image of Satan. I imagine the people on the internet who’ve been grumbling for the last twenty years about Disney’s Hercules making Hades a villain must be positively frothing at Mitchell and Chavkin’s version getting people to sell their souls to him. Plus, in the first act it’s suggested he wants Eurydice as a mistress, but by the second he just tricked her into signing her soul away so he can add her to his army of workers. Which, again, if the starting point is Greek mythology then this isn’t technically Hell and everyone’s going to go there when they die anyway, so Hades has gone to a lot of effort to get one undernourished (SHE’S SO HUNGRY) young woman to do manual labour for him slightly earlier than she would have anyway.

Maybe he did fancy her to start with but went off her because she had a soggy bottom.

Essentially this is a bit of a weird one for me, I’m someone who clearly will get distracted by a plot that doesn’t make sense unless there’s enough to grab my attention that I just don’t care. And while there’s obviously a lot that’s good here, it wasn’t quite good enough to make me ignore the meandering story and inconsistent characters.

Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin is booking in repertory until the 26th of January at the National Theatre’s Olivier; then from the 22nd of March at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

1 comment:

  1. I've been looking for someone else with this opinion haha! Yes agreed, it's such a pity that this story is about Orpheus (+ Eurydice) because the much more interesting story is Hades and Persephone? Right? My mind went haywire filling in their backstory and the slow degradation of a marriage that was built on a shaky foundation of immense passion? As opposed to this Love Story of all of like three weeks that sets into motion Big Events. Romeo and Juliet are teenagers, people. The older you get the more Oh, Honey, No you should be.