Orpheus. Ah, Orpheus. Boy with the lyre, boy with the heaven-sent gift, boy who can charm the birds out of the trees and send Cerberus fast asleep, drool dripping from his triptych of jaws. He’s meant to be a hero, or at least someone you side with, but I can’t stand him. Or at least not in Hadestown, where Anais Mitchell’s song cycle-turned 2010 album-turned musical half-reimagines his role into someone even more feckless and cocksure that in the original myth.
The Greek Orpheus lost Eurydice through no fault of his own: she died of a snakebite. In Mitchell’s ornate, 1930s New Orleans-set retelling, Orpheus lets her go. She’s starving, he’s off strumming his lute somewhere, and when he comes back, she’s signed a contract with Hades just to survive – here, the lord of the underworld is recast as a dark satanic mill owner with a voice like the deepest note of a church organ.
Combined with his failure to rescue Eurydice, this Orpheus is a man who makes two mistakes without ever experiencing guilt, or regret, or a backward glance that goes into his own psyche. Then gets rewarded at the show’s end with a song called ‘I raise my cup to him’, his endless myopic songwriting something to celebrate. And in Reeve Carney’s awkward portrayal, even Orpheus’s ethereal notes aren’t enough to give him a personality: he feels like a nonentity, a generic guitar-toting drifting philosophy student who’s used to letting women down and doesn’t let it cramp his style, or his plectrum-wielding hand. His Eurydice, Eva Noblezada, combines a voice of exquisite, heartrending sweetness with the underlying bounce of energy that, here, doesn’t have anywhere to go: her worries are the topline ones of love and survival, with none of the specificity that you need for a relatable romance. Yes, she signs away her life as part of a Depression Era pact with Big Business, but the exact terms, and her feelings about them, are hazy – this is a fairytale, not a Marxist satire, and it’s vague on the terms of its smoky world.
Maybe it’s wrong to get frustrated at the lack of emotional complexity in this Orpheus story. Or at the slight repetitiveness of David Neumann’s choreography, which feels static, or overly reliant on the Olivier’s revolve, which is used and reused to create circling rings of striving laborers, performing laborious motions as they turn. What Rachel Chavkin’s production feels like, as much as anything, is a concert performance – a showcase for the music that lets it shine.
And Mitchell’s music is beautiful, make no mistake. The band doesn’t feel quite as tight as it could, perhaps because players face each other on the opposite side of the huge Olivier stage in Rachel Hauck’s design. But the melodies still blur and recur in a demonic whirl. There’s gutsy strumming and the insistent punch of piano keys, and an energetic mish-mash of influences that stays just the right side of pastiche: jazz, bluegrass, soul. What makes it extra-special is the way that the performers and musicians continually acknowledge the audience. Hermes gets the crowd on side with an opening ‘Aight’ – Andre De Shields makes an ice-cool messenger god, introducing the band and principal players like we’re in an old-school jazz club.
Maybe, like a night at a jazz club, Hadestown is best if you know and love all the tunes already – if you’ve worn out the album and are ready to see it brought to life. And maybe, in that respect, it’s a bit like the stage version of Hamilton, which combines talented performers and brilliant music and counts on that being enough to send chills through the stalls. I was longing for more: more wordplay, more emotional nuance, more spectacular flourishes in the staging, heck, even hell itself opening up and swallowing the vast Olivier stage. But wanting too much when Hades is around is dangerous – you could lose your soul. And that’s something Hadestown has plenty of.
Hadestown is on at the National Theatre until 26th January 2019. More info and tickets here.