Greek myth meets Southern Blues in Anaïs Mtichell’s thoroughly entertaining musical take on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Hadestown has been on a lengthy journey from a touring concert to concept album to workshop theatre but it has now hit the big time, with director Rachel Chavkin bringing a show that has style, charisma and a heart worn firmly on its sleeve, to the Olivier stage at the National Theatre.
The action has moved from ancient Greece to a New Orleans style bar with a live blues/jazz band but otherwise much of the original myth remains intact. Hades (Patrick Page), and Persephone (Amber Gray) rule the underworld, Hadestown, but for six months she is allowed above ground, bringing spring and summer. When she is summoned back to Hadestown, winter follows and the people suffer. Young lovers Orpheus (Reeve Carney), and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) meet in the summer but by the time winter comes he is obsessed with finishing his song whilst she suffers the hunger and cold brought on by their poverty. Hades lures Eurydice to the underworld with promises of warmth and freedom but of course this is a trick. Orpheus must travel to Hadestown to rescue his love but with only his music to protect him, he must reach the old, cynical heart of Hades and persuade him to let the lovers leave.
The story telling is done through more than twenty original songs and this production is carried by the quality of the music and the quality of the performers delivering it. The songs move seamlessly from upbeat party tunes to political protest songs to emotional power ballads but all with an underlying blues, jazz or folk feel. The songs certainly reflect current political trends with unsubtle references to building a wall, benefits for the many not the few, #Metoo, and the battle between industrialisation and the natural world. However heavy the lyrics get the music remains fun and engaging, foot tapping is unavoidable, and each tune is greeted by a cheer from the appreciative audience.
One thing that exceeds the music is the quality of the performances by the leads and especially André De Shields as Hermes, the messenger of the Gods. He exudes cool and works the audience magnificently, introducing the characters, narrating the story and holding court throughout. His voice perfectly suits the musical style and his experience of musical theatre shines through. Gillan sometimes comes across as an X Factor auditionee but he attacks his songs with gusto and gives Orpheus an honesty and genuine heart. Noblezada gives Eurydice some much needed street smarts and is clearly a talented singer. Amber Gray gets to play a boozy party girl and has fun fermenting revolution behind her husband’s back, whilst Patrick Page’s voice is extraordinarily deep, a sound that vibrates the whole auditorium. His performance of ‘Hey Little Songbird’, used to lure Eurydice, would have fitted perfectly on a Leonard Cohen album.
The three fates, whose role is to whisper (sing) doubts into the protagonists’ ears are played as three glamourous backing singers, recalling the great supporting artists featured in the documentary ‘20 Feet from Stardom’. Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher and Gloaria Onitiri bring sass, glamour and a mischievous joy to their machinations. The rest of the chorus sing and dance their heart out giving an energy boost to the proceedings. Choreographer David Neumann packs a lot of movement into the two and half hours, and the coordination of the action across the small central space in the stage was slick and well-rehearsed. The excellent band led by pianist Mike Guy belt out the tunes and looked the part too.
Rachel Hauck’s set design does not make full use of the huge space at the Olivier but does create an atmospheric back drop that could comfortably move to a smaller space. She certainly makes full, and clever, use of the National’s rotating drum with cast members able to disappear into the underworld from centre stage or take long walks on the spinning stage without ever moving. Bradley King’s lighting is used to create the heat and noise of Hadestown but is done with little sympathy for the audience in the stalls who are regularly blinded by bright lights.
Whilst the drawing of parallels between the original myth and contemporary issues is somewhat messy and overly hammered home, that barely distracts from the sheer energy, fun and gusto of this show. There are some great sing-along tunes to help shift the original cast album but it’s the zeal of the performances that sell the show and make it incredibly hard not to be carried away with the sense of joy so apparent on the stage.
Reviewed by Kris Witherington