Finding Value in Classics: A Review of ‘Hadestown’

By Adam Kirkbride

Blog Staffer Adam Kirkbride catches Hadestown at the National Theatre before it strikes off for the bright likes of Broadway!

As someone who is an absolute nerd when it comes to ancient Greek mythology, the prospect of going to see a musical based on Ovid’s tale of Orpheus and Eurydice was exhilarating. Hadestown, written by Anaïs Mitchell and directed by Rachel Chavkin, not only satisfied my desire for a successful adaptation of an ancient tale, but exceeded everything I had ever hoped to gain from this astonishing piece of theatre.

Mitchell originally wrote Hadestown in 2006 as a concept album for a folk opera, and after many years of low-profile performances, alterations, and off-Broadway runs, it was finally announced that it will transfer to Broadway in 2019. Luckily for us, ahead of its transfer, the National Theatre hosted the musical’s UK debut in the stunning Olivier theatre from the 2nd of November 2018 to the 26th of January 2019.

Hadestown is, without a doubt, the most amazing theatre production that I have ever seen.

From the very moment I entered the Olivier theatre I felt immersed in the atmosphere of lively, uncertain energy that keeps the audience engaged throughout the musical. The set was stunningly designed by Rachel Hauck in a style that can only be described as Great-Depression New Orleans meets post-apocalyptic warehouse. Chavkin’s distinct, mildly Brechtian directorial style shone through as the cast entered for the jazzy opening number, “Road to Hell I”, and were introduced one-by-one. Hermes, a sort of narrator for the play’s action, was played magnificently by André De Shields, whose energy and slightly sassy undertones turned an already exciting song into a musical number that was irresistibly entertaining. Shields’ performative introductions of the playful Persephone (Amber Gray), the mysterious Fates (Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher, and Gloria Onitiri), the deeply intimidating Hades (Patrick Page), and the lovers Orpheus and Eurydice (Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada), transformed a somewhat functional song into one of the production’s musical highlights.

The entire theatre buzzed with energy from beginning to end. Like a child in a sweet shop I was baffled as to what I should be fixing my eyes on; everything, from David Neumann’s amazing choreography, to Hauck’s astonishing design of the space, to the incredible live band, was utterly enchanting.

Hadestown not only retells the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but takes the audience on the journey with them. When Persephone is resigned to the underworld, we feel her frustration. When Orpheus follows Eurydice to Hadestown, accompanied by the astonishing musical number “Wait for Me”, we are following along behind him. When Hades’ power is threatened, and Page abandons his cool, off-hand air in the amazingly choreographed “Chant II”, we feel as tense and intimidated as Orpheus. With each song I fell more and more under Mitchell’s spell, and when Carney’s vocals soared through his amazing “Epic” numbers, I truly understood the power of Orpheus’ musical ability in a way that was not possible to experience when reading Ovid’s myth.

This musical truly demonstrates the answer to the question by which all English Literature students are plagued: “Why bother studying a load of dead writers?” Not only has Mitchell adapted an age-old story of love and power into a jaw-dropping musical experience, but she took that story and gave it startling new relevance to a modern audience. When Gray’s Persephone spits out her lines to “Way Down Hadestown”, protesting that the time she spent on Earth “was not six months” as the traditional myth of Hades and Persephone suggests it should be, the audience face a subtle reminder of the danger posed by climate change. Page’s hypnotic bass crooning, “I missed ya” in response to Persephone’s protests offers no consolation to the rest of the characters, who are left without sustenance for the remainder of the year. When the gods who control earth’s natural climate are no longer playing by the rules, an active viewer cannot help but think of the threat that big corporations pose to the environment.

Moreover, although Mitchell wrote the musical a decade before Trump rose to power, it is impossible to listen to the first act’s closing number “Why We Build the Wall” without being haunted by the newfound relevance the song’s lyrics have. The chorus engage in a classic and chilling call-and-response structure to reinforce the oxymoronic freedom that the wall brings, workers selling their very souls to escape poverty.

However, while Mitchell’s lyrics contain a criticism of Hades’ absolute authoritarianism, Hadestown doesn’t necessarily advocate constant revolution. Eurydice has no choice but to be the binary opposite of her lover, succumbing the to establishment as he brutally resists it, and their polarised attitudes lead to pain and suffering. This bold message for many today, when considering the UK’s current political climate, will point towards the need for cooperation between the people and the establishment if we wish to avoid tragedy.

The beauty of this musical can be found in its cyclical closing number: “It’s an old song, and we’re gonna sing it again and again”. Hadestown is a deeply complex adaptation of what was a somewhat simple tale of love and power. Basic ideas of desire, healthy relationships, and power are irrevocably intertwined with nuanced speculations on climate change, nationalism, and the position of art in an industrial world. Mitchell’s work will undoubtedly stay with me for a very long time, and I would highly recommend anyone who enjoys folk and jazz music, or modern workshop-based theatre to look into this musical and its amazing soundtrack. For me, Hadestown will be a constant reminder of the fact that there is value to be found in classics, but only if we are prepared to look for it.