Hadestown – National Theatre, London

Music, Book and Lyrics: Anaïs Mitchell

Director: Rachel Chavkin

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

There are many stars that have aligned to create Hadestown, a hellishly magnificent new musical based on Anaïs Mitchell’s 2010 concept album which reframes the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the grand tradition of the music of the American South.

Chief among them is Mitchell herself, who crafts her tale not as a contemporary retelling in the way that, say, West Wide Storyreframes Romeo and Juliet. No, this is a continuation of an eternal oral tradition. The relationship between Hades, the lord of the underworld, and his wife Persephone defined the seasons for the Greeks: when Persephone returned from the Underworld every year to visit her mother Demeter, she would bring with her the spring and summer: when she returned, autumn and winter would fall, and her clashes with her husband upon her return would inspire storms on the mortal plane.

In Mitchell’s version, the world Persephone has returned to is mired in the Great Depression: while those who are struggling ban together in camaraderie in a jazz club hosted by Hermes (André De Shields), many have taken jobs in Lord Hades’ mines, unaware until it is too late that they have sold their souls for eternity.

Another star that aligns here is Rachel Hauck’s set design. Using the Olivier’s circular stage to create three concentric revolves, Hauck builds up the back walls in an arc to create a set that both capitalises on the Olivier’s large space and, miraculously, makes it seem intimate. The effect is helped by sound designers Jessica Paz and Nevin Steinberg, who ensure that the singers’ voices sound far more natural than most amplified musicals ever manage.

None of that hard work would matter were the central performances not able to captivate. Eva Noblezada’s Eurydice, a hungry homeless woman who falls for Reeve Carney’s penniless, but musically gifted, Orpheus, succeeds most strongly here: in the first act at least, she is the hero and her beau a mere supporting player, who after a swift and intense seduction retreats to work on writing a composition that he believes will change the seasons.

It is during this period of neglect that Eurydice falls under the gaze of Patrick Page’s Hades, who has surfaced to retrieve his wayward wife (Amber Gray). In the absence of her love, Eurydice succumbs to the promise of paid work. Notably, here, there is a sense of agency in the character that most retellings of the myth omit: rather than just being a pawn between Orpheus and Hades, Eurydice has agency of her own. This may be to make her own monumentally bad decisions, but there is a sense of a personality and character in Mitchell’s version of the story that is often missing.

It is easy to see, too, how Eurydice could be seduced by Hades. Page’s voice has such a deep bass that, at times, one could quite believe it originates from the pits of Hell, with vocal stylings reminiscent of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen at his most mournfully tuneful. Alongside him, Gray’s Persephone brings in elements of Celtic folk, the contrast with both her husband’s nature and the Dixieland jazz of the mortal plane further enhancing her sense of otherworldliness.

Hades is also afforded the musical’s most contemporary political parallel, especially when he sings of the wall he has built around his domain. In a call and response with the ensemble, he emphasises that its purpose is to keep out those who would corrupt the world he has constructed inside: in reality, it is a protection for his power base, to keep in those who would leave given the opportunity. His captivation by, and exploitation of, Eurydice has modern parallels too: a telling reminder that men of power exploiting women with none is far from a modern trait.

Carney too is excellent here, as the idealistic young man who knows that the music he performs has transformative powers. Music director Liam Robinson’s vocal arrangements further emphasise this: there is a marked difference between Orpheus’s intimate songs to his beloved Eurydice and those he imbues with magical spirit. The musical’s ensemble, who also enthral throughout via David Neumann’s evocative choreography, are used to enrich and enhance Carney’s vocals in places, just as modern recording studios use backing vocalists to expand a lead performer’s performance.

Indeed, there is so much fusion of classical and modern styles – in dance, in music, in storytelling – here that one cannot help but think of Hamilton, which has achieved similar fusions. Hadestown is certainly in the same class – and, indeed, one imagines it must have benefited from the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus. Mitchell’s musical takes the sort of creative decisions that one would have to work hard to get accepted by those holding the purse strings even five years ago: without Hamilton leading the way, it is easy to imagine that we would not have, in Hadestown, a musical with a cast so diverse, which combines musical genres so freely and readily.

When first announced, it seemed a little odd that Britain’s most important theatrical space should be used, in effect, as an out-of-town tryout for a show which was always destined to head to Broadway. That question still remains, but now it has a companion: how could Hadestownwork so well anywhere else, when its current staging is such a perfect fit for the Olivier?

But work elsewhere it will. Work elsewhere it must. As Hermes reminds us at the end, this is a story that we tell ourselves over and over again, and that will continue for as long as humanity exists. One only hopes that the tale exists in the form of Hadestownfor many years to come.

Continues until January 29 2019 | Image: Helen Maybanks

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