Matthew Lunn reviews Hadestown, a new musical by Anais Mitchell now playing at the National Theatre.
The National Theatre (Olivier)
14th November 2018
When Anais Mitchell wrote the concept album that inspired this musical, the world was a more hopeful place. Obama had been President for little over a year and was yet to receive the “shellacking” of his first mid-terms. The great reversion in US politics was not yet in its infancy, and Mitchell’s depiction of a silver-tongued despot who makes “mighty big deals”, “[keeps] the rust belt rolling” and builds a wall to maintain his people’s freedom, is quite extraordinarily prescient. Myths are so powerful because they tell us timeless stories, and this musical explores the beauty and melancholy that underpins some of our deepest hopes and fears.
Hadestown transports the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to a deprived modern society, a perpetual winter where jobs and food are scarce. Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) and Orpheus (Reeve Carney) fall in love, with his light heart and beautiful music providing respite from the cold. Spring returns when Persephone (Amber Gray) appears, and the lovers feel sure that their troubles are at an end. Yet when Persephone’s husband, Hades (Patrick Page), summons her back to Hadestown, an underground factory that promises food and shelter for all its workers, winter returns with a vengeance. Eurydice begins to lose hope, and when she is approached by an alluring stranger, she understands that love alone cannot feed her, so takes a one-way ticket to Hadestown. On learning her decision, Orpheus despairs, but the mysterious Hermes (André De Shields) tells him of a treacherous back route to the factory, and he resolves to rescue her.
At its best, Hadestown is utterly transcendent. ‘Way Down Hadestown’ – a jazzy, high octane arrangement which introduces the titular factory to the audience – is simply breath-taking, and a highlight of David Neumann’s exemplary choreography. The lyrics are consistently impressive, and at times, sublimely poetical. I cannot praise too highly Hades’ ruminations in ‘His Kiss, The Riot’, where his fear of Orpheus’s “belladonna kiss” transforms at the realisation that “Nothing makes a man so bold/As a woman’s smile and a hand to hold/But all alone his blood runs thin/and doubt comes in”.
In turn, the performances are just wonderful. Page and Gray have been playing Hades and Persephone for two years, and gift their other-worldly figures a naturalism that enhances the musical’s allegory. Although their relationship is not explored in depth, the subtle ways in which they act as foils for Orpheus and Eurydice offers a fascinating insight into how we are elevated by love and diminished by greed. Page’s tuneful ultra-bass, reminiscent of late-era Leonard Cohen, is both terrifying and captivating, exuding power. Noblezada’s Eurydice is beautifully judged, her powerful and sorrowful voice effortlessly depicting her passions and her conflict. Carney is a highly convincing Orpheus, his pureness of heart shining through a character who might have seemed self-absorbed in the wrong hands, whilst De Shields is a classy and charismatic narrator.
Hadestown has a few flaws which makes it fall short of absolute greatness. Orpheus is underwritten and consequently less human than Eurydice, his god-like preoccupations sitting uneasily with the Great Depression aesthetic that catalyses his lover’s behaviour. Indeed, the musical seems uncertain whether Hadestown is a literal or figurative hell, Hermes’ line “Eurydice was a hungry young girl, but she wasn’t hungry anymore/What she was, instead, was dead – /Dead to the world anyway” seemingly contradicting an earlier description of her being “six feet under”. Whilst the musical is frequently excellent at world-building – as seen with the easy vibrancy that follows Persephone’s return to the surface – the horrors of the factory are not wholly defined, with the music having to cover too many bases. Although the chorus was remarkable for its energy and versatility, they might have been enhanced by greater numbers, to magnify the suffering of the workers and bring to life the unbreakable bureaucracy described so wonderfully in song.
Inconsistency cannot, however, be a barrier to joy. That which is good about the musical is so staggeringly triumphant that you would be hard pressed to leave without feeling lighter. Hadestown has the potential to be something truly special.