The independent magazine Exeunt once published a list of theatre criticism clichés, from “anarchic” (“they threw stuff at us, then implied we were all awful people for paying £15 to come watch them in a theatre”) to “atmospheric” (“I know I was meant to feel something but I was also thinking about chips”). The opening of Hadestown, however, made me think of an underused adjective: assured. The moment André de Shields’s Hermes stepped on stage at the National I felt my shoulders drop in relaxation. Whip-thin, sharp-suited, with a grey halo of hair, he prowled the vast space for a full minute, smiling enigmatically at the crowd, before launching into “Road to Hell”, the show’s opening song. Oh thank God, I thought. Everyone here knows what they’re doing.
That shouldn’t be rare, but it is. Any theatrical performance involves dozens of moving parts and making them feel like a cohesive whole is the great challenge. For a musical with dance routines, double the difficulty setting. Perhaps Hadestown feels so confident because it has been able to mature over more than a decade. It started as a simple theatre piece by American singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell in 2006 and became a concept album in 2010. It then progressed to a full-blown musical under the direction of the highly regarded Rachel Chavkin. After small runs in New York and Edmonton, it has landed on the National’s vast Olivier stage before a transfer to Broadway.
Hadestown turns the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a folk-opera with New Orleans jazz influences, using sets and costumes whose style falls somewhere between steam punk and Some Like It Hot. Even the lighting was unobtrusively superb – huge swinging lamps give the underworld the feel of a gold-rush mining town. (I’m excited to see Chavkin’s staging of Arthur Miller’s The American Clock at the Old Vic next year.) The best song, “Why We Build the Wall”, has a pleasing resonance in the Trump era. “Why do we build the wall, my children?” asks Hades. Here’s why: “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.”
Enough being nice. I do have quibbles. Reeve Carney, as Orpheus, is supposed to be the singer who charms the animals and opens up the gates to the underworld. In his open shirt, a guitar slung around his waist, he instead reminded me of the type of guy who’d tell you he spent the summer “working on his music” before earnestly trying to kiss you while juggling a spliff and a bottle of IPA. Orpheus’s refrain ventures an octave higher than is advisable: Carney looks slightly pained every time he attempts it.
Pleasingly, Eva Noblezada’s Eurydice gets an agency upgrade from the original myth. Here, she chooses to go to the underworld because she is starving, rather than stepping on a snake and carking it. However, the really juicy roles are not the vanilla leads but the supporting characters. Persephone (Amber Gray) is a lairy drunk whose sees her annual six months in the sun as a chance to get tanked and dance on tables. Patrick Page’s Hades has an aesthetic best described as “Snakebite Steve”, with silver-heeled shoes and those little bracelet things that keep your sleeves rolled up if you’re a riverboat gambler. His voice is almost unbelievably bass: I found myself wondering if he orders coffee in Starbucks by going “Thaaaanks, a cappuccinooo pleaaase”, his vowels rumbling like thunder through distant hills.
As for the plot, you probably know it: Girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, girl ends up in the underworld, boy sings his way down there, girl and boy get permission to leave if boy does not look behind him on the way out. Boy cannot obey simple instructions. Boy and girl are parted for ever.
In this version, however, there’s a twist, cannily echoed in the production’s generous use of the Olivier’s zillion revolves. Perhaps the story repeats itself, endlessly. Our fates are not just predestined, but cyclical, like the arrival and departure of Persephone on earth. It is a neat way to end, with a beginning. It feels… assured.
National Theatre, London SE1
This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis