A visit to Hadestown, or, Crying in public is okay sometimes


One Saturday evening a few weeks ago, I was walking near Waterloo Station in the heavy kind of rain that made you want to go and run around in it when you were little. I was soaked through already, but nevertheless it stung to get further splashed by a passing car and a puddle as I approached the back of the National Theatre. I messaged my sister, who I'd seen earlier in the afternoon, saying, "I'm getting drenched!! This show better be good!" A while later when I checked my phone there was a message from her - "Was it worth it?" It took me a moment to remember what she meant since I had spent the preceding two hours travelling to... Ancient Greece..? New Orleans? The Underworld? My very articulate response was, and I quote, "Oh my god yes. Like. It was really really really worth it."

I completely adored Hadestown, the new-ish musical from writer Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin that reimagines the ancient tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. I went to the very last performance in London, ahead of a transfer to Broadway in March, having bought a ticket on the type of FOMO-based whim that can strike from time to time. I love all things classical, and could never forget how incredible Eva Noblezada was in Miss Saigon a few years ago, so when I saw she was in it I knew I had to go. It got pretty good reviews throughout its run (solidly four-stars across the board except for that one pesky Times review), but I arrived knowing nothing more about it than Eva Noblezada + New Orleans jazz + Orpheus and Eurydice.

Broadly, it tells the story of two couples: Orpheus and Eurydice, and Hades and Persephone. It is set sort of nowhere in particular, a steampunky saloon somewhere dreamy and in-between. Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) is a pragmatic, self-sufficient young woman, looking out for herself in an unforgiving world. Orpheus (Reeve Carney) is a dreamer: a poet and a troubadour who "sees the world as it could be, not how it is". Dressed as a Springsteen-esque hipster (and, yes, I do mean that as in a positive way) with a voice like Jeff Buckley, and brandishing a guitar he plays periodically, Orpheus is on a mission to write a song to save the world.

Hades (the fabulously bassy Patrick Page) is the lord of Hadestown, aka the underworld - and a highly inventive namer-of-places - and Persephone (Amber Gray) is his queen, or at least she is some of the time. She spends half the year having a fun, boozy time 'up above', and has to spend the rest of the year 'down below', plunging the world into a grim 6 months of winter and darkness as the two former (?) lovers endure each other's enforced company.

One summer, Eurydice and Orpheus happen to meet at the liminal saloon and fall deeply, carelessly in love; her realism tangling with his idealism, generating sparks and heart-eyes all over the stage: "All I've ever known is how to hold my own, and now I want to hold you". This sequence was tender and romantic - it felt very honest and natural, and it was a joy to watch. We love love stories and this one was as sweet as any I've seen. It helps that Noblezada and Carney both have voices you could listen to for hours. It wasn't serious or melodramatic or gritty, just playful and lovely and I loved it. I read afterwards that some reviewers weren't sure there was enough chemistry between these two, but I was bought in, paid up, utterly convinced.

What's a love story without stakes though? Winter inevitably comes, and Orpheus is distracted by his attempts to write the world-saving song (male artistic privilege tbh), and when the gnawing of hunger and the indifference of her husband become too much for Eurydice, she is persuaded to sell her soul to Hades for a square meal and "a soft place to land".

Eurydice quickly discovers that Hadestown is actually an exploitative dystopia where the poor soul who has been duped into buying in is trapped for eternity building a wall to keep everyone else out. Hades leads his underlings in a song called 'Why We Build The Wall' which explores the primal instinct to create borders to protect yourself from the world.

"Why do we build the wall?
     We build the wall to keep us free.
How does the wall keep us free?
     The wall keeps out the enemy.
Who do we call the enemy?
     The enemy is poverty.
Because have and they have not,
     Because they want what we have got.
What do we have that they should want?
     We have a wall to work upon!
     And our work is never done!
That's why we build the wall."

It feels like it could have been written at any point over the last two years of America's current political situation, but is actually much older than than, dating from about 15 years ago, when songwriter Anaïs Mitchell was first working on the song-cycle that became a concept album. Mitchell has said that it was actually inspired by thinking about climate change: "I was looking forward and imagining a lot of displaced people knocking at the door."

To cut a long story short, Orpheus realises Eurydice is gone, takes a dangerous trek down to Hadestown to find her, and ends up being given a chance to sing his song to save her. Hades (and I hope it's not too much of a spoiler to spoil a myth from several thousand years ago) agrees to let him leave with her, as long as he walks in front and doesn't looks back until they're above ground. I'll leave you to guess at how he did...

Orpheus sings a song when he's on his way down to Hadestown called 'Wait For Me', which was staged beautifully. There were industrial-looking lights hanging on chains from the ceiling and there was great 'light-ography': as the main soaring chorus kicked in, the ensemble swung the lights towards the audience on their chains in time with the swells of the song. It was something I hadn't seen before and I thought it worked exceptionally well. The intricate harmonies rose and fell, and light shone all around the Oliver Theatre's auditorium - itself based on an ancient Greek theatre. It was thrilling and, again, I loved it.

That was actually a bit of a recurring theme for me while watching Hadestown. There were lots of moments in the show that I liked so much that I assumed I must be, well, wrong... I knew going in that the show was described as using Louisiana Jazz and Americana music to retell a Greek myth, and I knew it was adapted from a concept album by a revered folk singer, and it was on at the National Theatre. I expected it to be Very Good and Well Made and Classy and Clever and Interesting, but this was also romantic and wildly enjoyable. It felt like watching an accomplished blockbuster musical that had been running for years. It felt like watching... Wicked. (And I love Wicked).

I had a wonderful time, and I was really, really loving it (did I mention that already?) , and then it got to the climactic scene where Orpheus is asked to play the final version of his song to save the world. That whole scene did something to me. I've watched and adored Hamilton seven times, and never cried. I've watched a lot of theatre and I actually quite rarely genuinely get moved to tears. Frankly, sometimes when I do, I'm aware that I have sort of squeezed them out so that I can say that I did? But this time, I was watching Orpheus sing this song he's played versions of a few times before, and this version just got to me. Loosely, as best as I can remember, the song speaks to Hades and Persephone, and reminds them of the time when they were truly in love, but I really can't remember the details, just how it made me feel. When it got to its big finish, I was surprised to find myself weeping, not because it was sad, but because it was so simply beautiful and so, I don't know, true? It seemed to touch me in the most genuine metaphorical sense, like the music and the performances reached a hand into my chest, rummaged around, and found something shiny and new, or perhaps something old, long-dormant? It was like hope and sadness and beauty and love and joy and melancholy. I can't explain it because I didn't really understand it. It just made me feel. I walked to the tube later getting misty-eyed at the memory. This show is so so so so good.

The 2017 cast recording seems to be a significantly different version, especially on my favourite songs, so I can't currently relisten and examine what I liked so much, which is kind of wonderful in that it was this special evening I shared with the people in the room and no-one else. The other thing that is incredibly moving is that this is a retelling of an ancient myth - we have been telling each other this story for thousands of years. Humans are amazing (and terrible).

I loved Hadestown so much more than I expected to dashing into the rain-soaked evening. It was a really, really special night. I'm excited to follow its Broadway journey, and keeping my fingers crossed that this production is preserved on a cast album with Eva Noblezada and Reeve Carney and these new songs. Anyway, you heard it here first last: Hadestown will be the next great blockbuster musical and I will love it forever.

"Can't promise you fair sky above,
Can't promise you kind road below,
But I'll walk with you, my love, any way the wind blows..."

I mean, come ON. Beautiful.

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