It’s no surprise that the Orpheus and Eurydice myth has so often tempted songwriters. It’s a brilliantly tragic story about the power of songwriting and singing.
Unlike other adaptations, though, Anais Mitchell’s folk musical is much more than just the love story. She has built the show from her 2010 cult concept album with Rachel Chavkin – director of Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 – so that now it’s a metaphor for industrialisation and art’s place within a capitalist society and many other things besides.
Here the underworld is a deep mine, Hades its grim overseer, promising his workers freedom and giving them indenture instead. Since the album the show has only become more – in fact eerily – prescient. Its song about building a wall to keep the poor at bay sounds almost too obvious. The disquiet and destitution of old rust belt, white collar America? It’s hard to imagine anyone writing anything so glaringly unsubtle now.
Elements have been added to the piece slowly: more songs, character motivation, recitative. And now there’s this. The myth made into supercool folk opera in a tryout at the National Theatre before it hits Broadway next year.
Dialogue melts imperceptibly into song. Lines that start as spoken end up in full chorus and Mitchell’s stomping folk songs sound timeless. Chavkin oversees some great visual set pieces, particularly making use of the Olivier’s revolve. At one point Hades, Persephone and wafts of haze get sucked into the drum, descending into hell.
The amphitheatre at Epidaurus that the Olivier is based on is almost reflected back in Rachel Hauck’s design, concentric circles with a stage area in the centre and added dive bar feel.
Hauck has the band spread out across the stage – a guitar here, a cello there – which combine to create a fantastically warm panoramic sound. It’s also really exquisitely orchestrated by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose, with glissandoing trombones, freewheeling accordion solos and drums which, in the song Livin’ It Up On Top, sound brilliantly as if they keep skipping a beat.
The show is so coolly self-aware. Hermes the messenger god, played sublimely by Andre De Shields, the very epitome of cool, introduces the story and the band and the characters. He’s completely spellbinding, with hints of mischief and mystery. There’s so much style in everything he does.
Amber Gray’s wonderfully wild Persephone perfectly partners Patrick Page’s slow, growling Hades, their tempestuous relationship completely believable. Eva Noblezada is a sympathetic Eurydice. It’s easy to see why, perpetually hungry and poor, she decides to take a job in Hades’ mine.
Unfortunately, Reeve Carney’s Orpheus is a bit of a drip. His voice feels strained and his movements clumsy. It not his fault that the production has decked him out in tight black jeans, a waistcoat and guitar, like some Stars in Their Eyes Springsteen knockoff, but it doesn’t exactly help.
The irony is that Orpheus is meant to be the best singer in all the world, in the history of all time. To its credit, this adaptation of the myth makes it seem genuinely possible that Orpheus might succeed in his quest, that he might not look back – but it’s probably the the only time you’ll think Eurydice might be better off if he didn’t.
This aside, this is rich and often stunning production, a contemporary and ageless reincarnation of an ancient myth.