Originally a 2010 concept album by Anais Mitchell, Hadestown has now been adapted into a musical and is playing a select run at the National Theatre London before opening on Broadway in the Spring. Hadestown is a re-imagining of Greek myth set in a post-apocalyptic future that is heavily reminiscent of the Great Depression, emphasised by the bluesy music and described by Mitchell as a folk opera. It’s a setting that resonates with our past, our present and our (likely) future. In brief: Orpheus and Eurydice are young lovers struggling to get by. Hades, arriving to return his wife, Persephone, to the Underworld, desires Eurydice, giving the audience an early clue to the state of his marriage. Eurydice allows herself to be seduced, both by Hades and the promise of a better life. When Orpheus follows her he finds that, while there is wealth in Hadestown, all of it is being hoarded by Hades, and Eurydice bitterly regrets her decision.
Orpheus (Justin Vernon on the album, while understudy, Adam Gillian, replaced Reeve Carney in the performance I saw) is the Platonic ideal of the poet or musician: wide-eyed, idealistic and naive but with the inner strength to follow his lover to the Underworld. Eurydice (Anais Mitchell/Eva Noblezada) is more complex: worldly, practical but with a surprising vulnerability. Anais Mitchell deserves credit for writing a female character who is allowed to make mistakes, choose survival over love and fall so catastrophically while still being portrayed as being sympathetic and deserving of love.
Hades himself is portrayed as a businessman: powerful, ruthless, magnetic. Greg Brown and Patrick Page both play up his earthy connotations by singing in a deep bass which sounds like the earth itself is shaking. With startling foresight for a song written in 2010, he seduces and misleads the masses into building a wall, convincing them that while working for him is hard, unemployment is worse (“Why We Build The Wall”). Despite their miserable working conditions, the indoctrinated workers’ biggest fear is that people will come from outside and take their jobs.
Persephone (Ani DiFranco/Amber Gray), is his opposite: vibrant, subversive and compassionate. She runs a speakeasy, but instead of alcohol, she brings reminders of the upper world to the sun-starved masses. Gray deserves real praise for her portrayal of Persephone as a borderline alcoholic, always trying to keep the party going but a hair’s breadth away from turning belligerent. She tottered rather than walked, passed around a seemingly bottomless hip flask and generally presented an emotionally complex, mature woman who has suffered under the strain of a tempestuous marriage. Given the current trend of portraying Hades and Persephone as the cute, stable couple in Greek mythology it was gratifying to see some recognition that their marriage began with an abduction.
Hermes, originally portrayed by Ben Knox Miller as a rough-voiced hobo, is reimagined by Andre De Shields as a smoother, more mercurial presence, emphasising a different aspect of the many-faceted god. And the Fates (The Haden Triplets/Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloria Onitiri) weave in and out of the story, subtly steering the players to their own mysterious ends in three-part harmony.
Part of the magic of the album is that it doesn’t over-explain. For example in the opening duet, “Wedding Song”, Eurydice repeatedly asks Orpheus how they’re going to pay for material costs of their wedding: the feast, the rings, the bed. Orpheus responds to her practicality with fantasy: he’ll sing and the world will provide for him, trees showering them with fruit, rivers giving up their gold, bird plucking their feathers for an eiderdown. The listener is left with two interpretations: in the first Orpheus is an almost godlike figure, literally in harmony with the natural world. In the second, Eurydice is working three jobs while her stoner boyfriend dedicates himself to his music. Likewise in “If It’s True”, where the Fates try to persuade Orpheus to give up on Eurydice, it’s unclear whether his initial self-doubt is genuine or a rhetorical device intended to incite a riot among the citizens of Hadestown. Is Orpheus a hapless poet in love who stumbles into situations and succeeds through his almost supernatural talent? Or has he grown into a more canny political figure than he appears on the surface?
Sadly this magic is lost in the musical adaptation, with Anais Mitchell’s original hour-long concept album padded to an unwieldy 2 hours and 30 minutes. This is understandable, given that Broadway shows often average 90 minutes to two hours. Smash hit Hamilton runs for 2 hours 45 minutes while the perennial favourite, Les Mis is slightly longer at 2 hours 50 minutes. Unfortunately the effect, in Hadestown, is like sitting through a karmic punishment where you’re forced to fully experience every word-padded essay you ever wrote at 3 am on the day it was due. Everything that was left ambiguous in the album is now explained directly to the audience, often more than once. The most egregious example of making the subtext text is where Hades challenges Orpheus to leave without looking back. Hades sings an entire musical number (“His Kiss, the Riot”) and then Hermes repeats the same information to Orpheus and Eurydice, despite the fact they were standing perhaps two metres away the whole time.
The new material fills gaps that didn’t need to be filled. Instead of being an established couple, Orpheus and Eurydice meet in the opening number and enjoy an accelerated courtship that feels forced compared to their introduction in the album. “Wedding Song” already perfectly establishes their characters: Orpheus is an idealist, Eurydice is a realist. Instead, Orpheus’ introduction to Eurydice, a woman he has never seen or spoke to before, is literally “come home with me”, followed by a proposal of marriage. This provides a poignant callback later when he finds her in the Underworld (a situation where telling someone “come home with me” is appropriate and will not get you maced) but it doesn’t quite make up for the clumsiness with which it’s introduced. Bafflingly, some things that were explicit in the album are unclear in the musical. Is Eurydice Hades’ mistress or has she instead been seduced by capitalism? Why have the Fates gone from being impartial and dispassionate observers to more actively trying to make as many people as miserable as possible? And, most confusing of all, this musical premiered in 2016 America. How did the creative team see a villain who sows misinformation and division in order to indoctrinate his people into building a wall, and decide to make him a more sympathetic character who was just going through a bad patch in his marriage and needed to reconcile with his wife?
Despite my reservations with the script, the cast delivered a high-energy performance, stylishly choreographed by David Neumann and directed by Rachel Chavkin. My favourite moment, however, wasn’t anything that happened on stage. At the climax of the musical, when Orpheus turns around accidentally condemning Eurydice, the woman next to me audibly whispered: “fuck”. Her ability to be caught up in the story made me wonder how I would have reacted to it if I’d come in fresh, never having heard of Orpheus and Eurydice, much less the album. And that’s why, despite my reservations, I’d rather Hadestown existed than not. At least one person in the theatre had presumably not heard the original myth. Mythology is a living language: myths must adapt to survive. Hadestown may be flawed compared to the album on which it was based, but it’s what an adaptation should be: wildly imaginative, willing to take risks, and add something new to the conversation.
[Reviewed by Kate Taylor.]