Review: Hadestown – from myth to musical

The National Theatre's musical work-in-progress proves to be a charming retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice

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Source: National Theatre

To know how it ends, and still to begin to sing it again,

As if it might turn out this time, I learnt that from a friend of mine…

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice has been told time and time again – but if, like me, you have listened to Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown for years – never once expecting it would make its way across the Atlantic – watching it all pan out gives more than the usual sense of déjà vu. The messenger god Hermes (the inimitable André de Shields), charmingly greeting the audience in a folksy bar, starts his tale with a warning. We know how it ends. There’s only one way this story can end. And yet what surprises me most of all is how un-inevitable it all feels; how full of life a story half in the underworld can seem, infused with New Orleans jazz and relentless, bittersweet optimism.

Hadestown faces an almost insurmountable problem right from the get-go – how can you capture a voice from the gods in human form? The original concept album solved this problem by using Justin Vernon (better known as the lead of Bon Iver), his voice layered threefold to create an eerie, startling effect. For a moment, as Reeve Carney sings his first lines to a spectacular ensemble harmony, it appears this production is going to go along the same lines – such that it’s almost a shame when he begins to sing solo.

Carney’s voice can’t reach the haunting high notes of the original stage Orpheus (Damon Daunno) who many fell in love with, but this production has wisely lowered the range, giving this hero a more rock-star feel – and interestingly, to accompany this more mortal voice, an earthly goal.

Orpheus’ revolutionary call to arms is an unexpected but welcome development to this script, although the atmosphere is truly made by the fantastic ensemble who add another dimension to this tried and trusted story. It’s certainly interesting to see Orpheus evolve into the socialist revolutionary we always suspected (but – here I emphasise – never, ever, ever imagined) he would be.

Eva Noblezada as Eurydice is a surprise delight and a standout performer. Her role in this production has been developed, with suitable changes to the script: “A lyre and a player – I’ve heard that one before”, she quips, unimpressed by our hero’s chat-up lines. Noblezada’s version has a tough edge, refreshingly cynical against the fairy-tale-like narrative. A second-act rendition of the mournful ‘Flowers’ in Hadestown is the culmination of this character, making her tough and believable, strong and complex and powerfully mourning – a heroine in her own right, rather than a muse. It’s her performance I leave the theatre most remembering, and it’s wonderful to see an interpretation of the ancient myth which doesn’t overlook Eurydice’s significance.

High regard of Patrick Page (Hades) and the fantastic Amber Gray (Persephone) has preceded them, and it’s obvious to see why – the two positively are their characters, inhabiting their roles with ease. Each steal the limelight whenever they appear (Persephone even more so in her lime-green dress): yet even when the pair aren’t centre stage, I find myself constantly looking for them in the shadows, waiting to see their complex reactions to the events panning out before them. In ‘Our Lady of the Underground’ Gray charms audience and ensemble alike, while Page’s eerily timeful ‘Why We Build the Wall’ proves a formidable first-act finale; first written by Mitchell in 2010, and originally inspired by the imminent threat of climate change, its lyrics have gained such recent relevance that uninformed critics have accused it of being a cheap shot at a famous political figure:

Who do we call the enemy?

The enemy is poverty

And the wall keeps out the enemy

And we build the wall to keep us free

That’s why we build the wall

We build the wall to keep us free.

A testament, perhaps, to the absurdity of recent times. It’s by no means a perfect production; parts of it are still very much a work in progress, a fact which is acknowledged and indeed embraced by both director Rachel Chavkin and Mitchell herself. I attempt not to be jaded by some of the biggest lyric changes, and there’s been a definite move towards streamlining the plot of a very ethereal play, but some of these changes feel a little too speltout – Orpheus’ song-writing mission is emphasised for the audience, as he rescues the marriage of the immortals we are repeatedly told are in love. It’s an understandable addition, given the ethical ambiguity of the original myth. But Orpheus’ signature song has been changed from a tune imbued with his own divine power to a literal love song written by the gods, first sung by Hades in Persephone’s garden (a garden no longer her mother’s – Demeter is conspicuously absent from this telling of the myth). This makes Orpheus’ climactic confrontation with Hades all the stranger. Page and Gray are skilled enough to communicate a loving relationship through stolen glances – that much is made obvious in the play’s second act – as such, it seems a shame to force such an explicit narrative upon them. Orpheus’ skill shouldn’t just be that he has unique access to the divine, it’s that he’s able to challenge them in spite of his mortality.

What I would be interested to see is how the production changes as its run progresses. There’s no Wicked-esque blueprint for this sort of thing, and there’s nothing else quite like it, particularly on the West End – and with a Broadway transfer confirmed for 2019, its clear this play hasn’t yet reached its final form. At times it’s frustrating to watch, attempting to catch subtle changes to lyrics, sometimes wishing the whole thing would stay still for just a moment. But for a show about the power of the spoken narrative, such fluidity feels strangely fitting.

And yet despite its haphazardness, no words can quite capture the zeitgeist of seeing it on stage. An undeniable strength of this production is in its set design – although a stage spinning in concentric circles makes me feel lightheaded by the end. It succeeds in capturing the endless movement of Orpheus’s journey and the eternal, monotonous work of the underworld laborers. A lift rising to the heavens and falling deep beneath the stage assists with some of the most emotional moments of the play: as Carney journeys down to the underworld, and the wonderful ‘Wait for Me’ builds to a crescendo, I’m left in awe by just how wonderfully it’s staged.

And there are beautiful, fantastic moments of tableau – the musical’s poignant ending is inevitable, oh so inevitable, but the way it is played out is an undeniable highlight of the production. As though things could change. As though it might turn out this time. As spring comes back around and the play resumes its start, as I leave the National with a smile on my face, I go against my age-worn instincts – I leave just believing it might. Hadestown is showing at the National Theatre until 26 Jan.

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