Orpheus should be performed in a pub. I know a critic is supposed to engage with what a show is and not what you imagine it could or should be, but Orpheus looks, feels, and sounds like a show that would be so much better off being performed in a pub.
Just think: in a pub, performers Alexander Wright and Phil Grainger could gather the audience ‘round them and engage in pre-show and mid-show chat and banter without looking like teachers beckoning their embarrassed class to wish them good morning. Singalongs could be coaxed organically into being and Grainger’s warm and skilful acoustic guitar-covers would feel a little better contextualized. We’re all just here to sing and tell stories.
And when the storytelling, despite Wright’s joyful, high-energy delivery and sometimes ingenious spoken-word-style rhymes, began to drag a bit, you could have a drink or eat some chips or pop up to the bar to quietly order another round. Wright could look people in the eye, talk directly to them, the way he so clearly wants to. But Summerhall’s Cairn Lecture Theatre is the antithesis of all this. Not only is it a sloped amphitheatre, the stage at the bottom of a pit of seats, there are literally desks. It’s rigid and formal, the black box and black curtains and visible lighting rig all so conspicuously theatrical, completely out of keeping with the style of song-and-story afternoon that Wright and Grainger – clearly sometimes at a loss as to how to fill the unsuitable space – are trying to create.
It’s hard not to notice all the empty space that ought to be filled with a circle of pub chairs and tables and pints, and instead wonder what else might be used to fill it, now that it’s up there looking like it wants to be a play. Like, say, any trace of a woman or her perspective.
Yes, as the title reveals, it’s the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, the perennially adapted tale of a dude who had one job. Okay, maybe that’s an uncharitable take on the tale of a man who travelled to the underworld, wooed Hades in song, and won the chance to bring his beloved wife back to earth if only he could make it all the way there without turning back to look at her. But oh my god Orpheus you had one job. Adaptations rarely seem to rank Eurydice’s tragedy – you know, literally being on the road to returning to life and instead having to turn back and be dead because your husband couldn’t keep his eyes on the road -equal with Orpheus’s loss. Sure, Orpheus is a widower, but Eurydice is the one who dies.
It’s not such a loss for this Eurydice, however, because she’s not really a person. She’s not paired with Orpheus, either: it’s the present day and she’s dating Dave, an everyman who’s had the music and colour sapped from his world by the ennui of modern living. His manic pixie dream dryad restores the sparkle – literally. The names themselves say everything you need to know: Dave is an individual, whose backstory we learn in detail. Eurydice is every Eurydice through time: a cypher, not a person. It’s hard to be sad when she’s dead, because who the heck is she?
None of these questions would matter quite so much if Orpheus were being done in a more informal setting. Tell a story amongst friends, let the small cosiness of the pub contrast with Wright’s exuberance, let Grainger’s cheerfulness draw you in. Everyone can sing along to the familiar tunes. Eurydice would still have no voice of her own, but in a more relaxed setting, they might feel like just one storyteller of many. Once they’re done and head off to grab a pint, maybe she’ll step up next.
Orpheus is on until 26 August 2018 at Summerhall. Click here for more details.