By Minna Jeffery.
Hadestown, by Anais Mitchell. Directed by Rachel Chavkin. Seen at the National Theatre, 13/11/18.
Sometimes it just happens that you take a bunch of cool things that should all be things that you, personally, are really in to, but when you combine those things the result is a kind of disappointing ‘meh’. Anais Mitchell, Rachel Chavkin, and a Greek myth should have been a killer combination for me. It was for a lot of people. There was something about Hadestown, though, that left me a little cold. I’ll preface this by saying that the music was great. Really great. I’ve been listening to it, both the original Anais Mitchell album and the New York cast recording, ever since. Thinking of it as a staged gig, I had a really good time.
‘it’s an old song / but we’re gonna sing it again’
Let’s take things back a couple of thousand years. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses (a Roman, poetic kind of compendium of Greek mythology), Orpheus is, literally, the best poet-cum-singer-songwriter in the mortal realm. He falls in love with a cute oak nymph called Eurydice. They get married, and at the wedding party Eurydice and some naiads go dancing and she gets bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus is so heartbroken that he sneaks down to the Underworld to get her back. Once there, he charms Hades with a number on his lyre and is granted permission to bring Eurydice back to life, on the condition that he doesn’t turn around and face her until they reach the mortal world. Then this happens: ‘Orpheus, afraid / that she would fail him, and desiring / a glimpse of his beloved, turned to look: / and at once she slipped back to the underworld’ (Ovid X:75-8). And that’s that, the end. Eurydice whizzes back to the Underworld, and Orpheus goes back to wondering round playing tunes on his lyre. Hadestown loosely follows this story, but transposes it to, well, somewhere sort of specific but also somewhere entirely unspecific.
‘once upon a time there was a railroad line, don’t ask where and don’t ask when’
So this is mythology. We’re in a mythical fairytale anywhere any time sort of place. Just that place looks an awful lot like a 1930s New Orleans jazz club. That’s clearly the kind of scene that a lot of the music has been heavily influenced by, so it does make sense on that level. It’s not a consistent setting though, it’s like a vaguely abstracted uncontextualized nod to that setting. Sort-of-but-not-actually-1930s-New-Orleans. I just wish they’d leaned further one way or another – either further into abstraction or further into a clear context. I don’t think either would lessen the shows mythical quality.
‘come home with me!’ ‘who are you?’ ‘the man who’s gonna marry you’
Orpheus (Reeve Carney) is like every floppy haired singer-songwriter so-called poet you fancied in your early teens. That’s probably why he makes me feel a bit sick. Poor Reeve Carney. He really does feel as though he’s in a different show to the rest of the ensemble. I guess I’m biased because I hate Orpheus. Not just this specific one, but as a character, historically, I cannot stand him. A self-absorbed pseudo-soft-boy. If someone proposes to you within moments of meeting you, you can be pretty sure he doesn’t give too much of a shit about your great personality. Ok ok I appreciate that not everything needs to, or indeed should, ascribe my personal feminist ideals, but surely it’s pretty clear that in the twenty-first century Orpheus can’t be the unproblematic hero of this tale? And admittedly, this doesn’t go completely unacknowledged in the show. One of my favourite moments came when Hermes scathingly rebuffed Orpheus’ lament at ‘losing’ Eurydice: ‘Brother what do you care? You’ll find another muse somewhere’. Oh and also the bit where the Fates cruelly sing ‘men are fools / men are frail’. Great content.
‘the enemy is poverty / and the wall keeps out the enemy / and we build the wall to keep us free’
It’s re-iterated that Eurydice winds up underground because of Orpheus’ inability to adequately feed and shelter her. That’s not really the case though, it emerges, because apparently this is also an anti-oppression/anti-exploitation/anti-capitalist musical. I.e., it’s not directly Orpheus’ fault that Eurydice sells her soul to Hades – it’s the result of unjust power structures. In this version of the Orpheus story, Hades is a sort of arch-capitalist exploitative mine owner, tricking people into signing away their souls to his factory. Patrick Page is fantastic as Hades. All seedy black shades and long leather coat, and a voice so low you can’t help but laugh with joy every time he opens his mouth. When he sings to his workers, ‘why do we build the wall, my children, my children?’, we obviously think of the current US administration and the president’s preoccupation with walls, despite the fact that the music was written several years before his election. It’s not a direct reference. We’re in vague territory again. Don’t get me wrong – anti-capitalist message? Great! I’m all for it! Just not when it’s kind of vague and not clear if that’s the central point and just a bit woolly and who’s the enemy and who’s the hero and what are we fighting again?
‘it’s a love song / it’s a tale of love that never dies’
The music is what shines through for me, and the gig feel of a lot of it is great. After the interval Persephone opens with ‘Our Lady of the Underground’, during which she introduces the band members. Amber Gray’s gravelly tones and expressive features and dance moves are a delight to hear and see. It’s definitely how I’d like Persephone to be. Cynical but defiant. Since the central couple (Orpheus and Eurydice) felt particularly underdeveloped, their love story confined to a couple of songs and fairly implausible, I felt much more drawn to Hades and Persephone. Even here, though, I’m uncomfortable. ‘I recall there was a time when we were happy, in the garden where we met’ Persephone sings to Hades. Forgive me, but I’m going to whizz us back to Ovid again. In his version, Hades, struck by cupid’s arrow ‘falls in love’ with and kidnaps an unconsenting Persephone, who was just out gathering flowers with her gal pals. A lot of drama ensues and after her mother gets involved it’s finally agreed that Persephone will spend half the year in Hades and half on earth (giving us seasons). A touching love story. I know it doesn’t sound like it, but it’s not that I require you to stick to exactly what Ovid wrote. Of course not. By all means, mix things up. They’re old stories though, and lots of us do know them, and it feels weird to me to ignore an abduction storyline and sell it as a romantic tale, albeit with an unconventional and dysfunctional couple.
‘cause here’s the thing: / to know how it ends / and still begin to sing it again’
One of the show’s biggest strengths was its ensemble. A band as tight as you could wish for, and a brilliant chorus. They help to bring the show a truly admirable momentum, not unaided by the Olivier’s legendary revolve. I mean, tell me – what is the point of staging a show in the Olivier if you’re not going to make good use of that revolve? Chavkin does not disappoint, and the revolve complements the music’s rolling momentum, literally, keeping it moving. I thought the choreography was cool, really matched the rolling feel of the music, kept things chugging along (something something fate something). I guess it all makes sense – things are cyclical, Persephone’s story reminds us of the seasons, and we’re thinking about old stories coming back around again and again, and so on. The final moment of the show even brings us back to the beginning moment. We love a cyclical structure.
‘it’s a sad song / but we sing it anyway’
What’s that final moment bringing us back to the beginning reminding us of though? That another guitar-wielding poet boy will always come along to make a load of unfulfilled promises? I couldn’t help but wonder who exactly they were invoking when, after the curtain call, the cast sang ‘here’s to all the Orpheus’s’. Here’s to artists? Here’s to those who fight for love? It’s unclear. It’s just quite a weird thing to say. Orpheus, here, is a neglectful partner who prioritises ~ the pursuit of art ~ over caring for the freezing, starving woman he insisted on marrying, two minutes after meeting her in a bar. Sure, sure he’s ‘fighting the system’ by breaking into the mine to free her, but then he doesn’t trust her enough to follow him out of the Underworld, and ends up consigning her to an eternity down there. What a guy.
‘la la la la la la la’
In the end it just felt a bit shallow, and I couldn’t help but wish that they had mined (lol) the depths of the story a bit further. But listen, it was a good time of a show, and the standing ovation at the end is testament to people’s enjoyment and that’s a really good and important thing and who am I to overthink it so much when people loved it? This is what I wrote in my notebook straight after the show: Sometimes I have to ask myself – why do you hate fun? Nooo it’s not that I hate fun. I am sad/jealous that everyone loved it but I didn’t?? am I being deliberately contrary?? Was I just feeling quite ill?? Who knows!! I think I just felt a bit empty at the end. Here are those sentiments written up with less double punctuation and a touch more coherence: Maybe I have unrealistic expectations for things I think I’ll like. Maybe (very likely) I just felt a bit grumpy because I was ill and that bled into all my feelings about the show. Maybe I just don’t know how to have a good time and I’m too cynical and think too much and should just have enjoyed myself and taken that worthy alleged anti-capitalist message to heart and left feeling empowered and with a good tune in my head. Maybe. I didn’t though. I’ve been humming the songs, but I was left wanting more. I want more analysis, I want more critique and questioning. Why do we keep coming back to these ancient stories if we’re not really going to probe them?