Saturday 19 January 2019

Hadestown: Interpreting Myth the Musical Way - Lucy Coats

Last month, I talked about rebooting old stories, and this month I want to continue that theme, in a slightly different vein. As many of you will know, reinterpreting myths is my bread and butter, whether as straight retellings, or using them as the bedrock of my fiction. So when I found out that one of my favourite Greek myths was being put on the stage as a musical, I had to go. Hadestown: The Myth, The Musical is based around the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, a tale of love and loss, and the power of doubt -- and what better myth to use the power of music to connect with an audience? This iteration of the tale has taken a long time to evolve -- it's over ten years since Ana├»s Mitchell, the lyricist and composer, took the album which became the beginnings of a folk opera on the road in Vermont, with a school bus, some puppets and some musicians. Now it's had a massively successful run as a full-blown musical at the National Theatre in London (still on till 26th January, and if you can get a ticket, please do!), and will be on Broadway from the end of March.

Mitchell and her director, Rachel Chavkin, have set the story in a speakeasy in Depression Era America, with live music right on the stage. Orpheus (Reeve Carney) is a starry-eyed songwriter, searching for the perfect notes to recreate the lost song of summer, and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) is a starving, homeless, streetwise waif shivering in a too-big coat, who just wants to assuage her hunger and be warm. In this particular version, it is this hunger and homelessness which is the key to Eurydice's journey to the underworld, seeking a better life, rather than the original death by snakebite. Deserted by Orpheus, who is locked into his quest for the perfect note, summer is over, Persephone has departed again to the Underworld and the cold winter winds have returned, along with doubt and desperation. In the absence of any other choice, Eurydice makes a devil's bargain with Hades, as women so often have to do, and are so often wrongly judged for. She will give him what he wants (her soul, her labour), although she doesn't really understand until she is down in Hadestown, working for no wages, what she is signing up for. It is an all too poignant metaphor for the precarious nature of the decisions so many real-life women have to take just to survive.

In the underworld itself, world-weary capitalist Hades (Patrick Page) and a bored, S.A.D.-haunted Persephone (Amber Gray) are having marriage problems, as Hades concentrates more and more on the task of building his never-ending wall, and less and less on the happiness of his wife, who turns to drink and drugs to survive.

When Mitchell first wrote the piece, President Trump was nowhere on the political horizon, but today the words of 'Why We Build the Wall' have a resonance she probably never imagined, and listening to Page's gut-trembling bass singing it as his chorus of grimy workers toil unendingly in the darkness is an extraordinary coming together of ancient myth and present day reality. Just close your eyes, listen to the clip below, and imagine that desperate train of northward-bound immigrants hoping for a better life, for a way out of poverty. But they are unwanted. even in Hell:
"Because we have, and they have not, because they want what we have got, the wall keeps out the enemy, and the enemy is poverty, and we build the wall to keep us free."

Of course, poverty, with its companions unemployment, starvation and degradation, was a very real enemy in the American Depression. The roots of it lay in the mistakes and cynical exploitations of the financial sector, much as it does today, but the resonance this piece has now goes much further. Poverty is not just an internal problem. Poverty in this case has expanded (because it is virtually impossible to watch this piece and not think of Trump's America), to include the demonisation of the other, the immigrant, anyone with a different religion or skin colour, or sexual orientation. It's not overt, but it is there, lurking in the shadows, and it gives Hadestown a chilling relevance I had not expected.

The music itself travels through jazz, blues, folk, indie and rock in a fluid rhythm, and the audience is guided through it all by the psychopomp Hermes (Andre de Shields), whose wise asides give us the clues and keys to untangling the final destination of doubt and despair.

I will freely confess that I had doubts before I went. I'm not a particular lover of musicals (no, not even Hamilton, which I am maybe the only person in the world not to like), but this was more of a folk opera than a musical, and I was fascinated and engaged from the first note. I said earlier that Orpheus and Eurydice is one of my favourite myths. I was trying to pin down why that is, and I think the answer is that it is one of the great love tragedies, the ones which provide true catharsis, which suck you in and spit you out on the other side of them, changed. I have seen many versions of this story performed, from Jean Anouilh to Tennessee Williams, and each time I have had the feeling, (much as I always do with Othello) that this time, this time, it will be all right, that he won't turn round too soon, that Eurydice will be saved. But, of course, she never is. The utter stillness and silence in the theatre at that moment, the sense of loss and sorrow, was palpable, and I didn't see how the cast were ever going to find a way to end it which didn't leave the audience desolated. But Hermes managed it, telling us that the eternal retelling of the tale, the renewal of the cycle of storytelling is what gives us life and hope that maybe one day things will change. It was a masterclass in bringing us back from the brink of despair.

I truly hope that if you get a chance to see Hadestown, you will. It is the best thing I've seen on the stage for years, and the music will ring in my bones for a long time to come. Myths are only alive for as long as they are retold and refreshed -- this one will live forever.

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review 
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Lynne Benton said...

Brilliant post, Lucy - it sounds amazing! And what a chilling resonance for Trump's America today. I'm interested to see that it will be on Broadway from the end of March, and wonder how long it will be before it reaches the ears of the White House and engenders some irate tweets!

Katherine Langrish said...

Wonderful post, Lucy! I envy you having seen it - I'm told it's all booked up now - but hope to see it next time around.

Anne Booth said...

That sounds amazing x

Anne Booth said...

Apologies for the x ! I added it and sent it without thinking!

Lucy Coats said...

Thanks, everyone -- your comments are much appreciated. And no worries, Anne!