In Persephone, the familiar Greek gods who structure the dynamic story are flawed: Zeus is an egotistic adulterer, Hera is cunning and wears a power suit, and Hades’ self-loathing perpetuates the grimness of the Underworld. In Emma Hawkins and Carrie Penn’s new musical, it is the women that shine; the titular Persephone is initially presented as a sheltered lamb, protected by her cautious mother Demeter, the goddess of harvest and agriculture.
As the story develops, Persephone moves through her well-known myth through classic musical theatre tropes; in her opening number she dreams of a tomorrow where she will be free to explore the world, uninhibited and unburdened with Hades by her side. However, Persephone presents a more nuanced, complicated version of her journey. The musical incorporates several beautiful, free-flowing dance numbers between Persephone and Hades that establish their connection (and its eventual rupture) in contrast to the tense relationship between brothers Zeus and Hades that results in delightful, well-sung duets throughout the performance.
Emma Hawkins’ direction allows her characters to think about and perhaps regret their decisions, reflected in recurring motifs of white roses and the push and pull enacted by the four-person Greek chorus narrators. On Persephone’s folk-rock musical style, Hawkins said she was inspired by her rural upbringing going to “barn dances and fiddles around the fire”. “We felt that reflected in the narrative itself because Persephone comes from a very isolated part of the rural countryside while Olympus is from a ‘little old town’”, a refrain echoed throughout the show by its stellar Greek chorus. In discussing her overall inspiration for the show, Hawkins was “interested in the Greek myths and how they look at the condensed parts of humanity that have become timeless and archetypal, and they also lend themselves really well to musical theatre because it’s high drama”.
Persephone certainly delivers on the promise of suspense, tackling intense themes of mental illness, sexual violence, and survival that may be difficult for audiences to process. Though the scenes do not explicitly depict such situations, it is a credit to the performances by the cast and crew that the effect of these moments linger long after you leave the Playhouse.
Persephone showcases women’s agency at its core: our protagonist chooses whether or not to eat the pomegranate seeds that would bind her to the Underworld for six months of the year; she chooses to return to the living world but seeks out shelter with Aphrodite instead of immediately returning to Demeter; she chooses to depart the Underworld when Hades becomes self-destructive. The emphasis on the bonds forged between women, regardless of the circumstances that led them there, is palpable in Persephone. The intimate and fraught relationships between the goddesses frame the show’s emotional core and shift the gaze away from the lavish heroics attributed to male gods; the women are interesting, complex, and more than just the companions of other immortal beings.
The standouts of the show include the portrayal of Aphrodite, who plays her role as a surrogate mother with gentility while deftly being a belting, liberated goddess of love, skipping across the stage at the same time. The actress who embodies Hera offers a new interpretation of her as more than just an embittered wife; we see her wrestle for moral clarity as parallels her and Persephone’s dual struggles in loving deeply flawed gods of lighting and hell.
It is evident that Persephone was created with love and dedication to the art of musical theatre and the misrepresented character of Persephone herself. Hawkins praises her creative team: “It’s amazing having this experience because you would never be able to put on an original musical in a 600-seat proscenium arch theatre. Getting to work with so many talented people (…) it’s easy to forget that these people do their degrees as well, they’re not just technicians and actors.” Commendation should also be given to Hawkins’ role as set designer, which produced haunting depictions of the Underworld through detailed paper theatre designs and the swift movement of trees that serve as a reminder to Demeter and the power of nature.
Eat a pomegranate seed and enter the Underworld — Persephone is a new musical which was well worth experiencing.