It is not often you get to see a show that can be regarded as a true original but this is indeed the case with Anaïs Mitchell's stunning musical Hadestown (National's Olivier Theatre) adapted from her concert album of the same name and directed by Rachel Chavkin, which fuses ancient legend with American myth.
In the warmth of summertime, songwriter Orpheus and his muse Eurydice are living it up and falling in love. But as winter approaches, reality sets in: these penniless young dreamers can't survive on songs alone. Tempted by the promise of plenty, Eurydice is lured to the depths of industrial Hadestown. On a quest to save her, Orpheus journeys to the underworld where their trust is put to a final test.
Forget the lyre, the tunics and the river Styx: here Orpheus's charmed instrument is a tenor guitar and the path to hell is a railroad track of the type you regularly encounter in American culture. In this version Mitchell relocates the story to the states and ancient myth tangles with contemporary concerns. The underworld is a hellish deep mine town, where fearful workers are presided over by Hades, a slick business tycoon, who promises them freedom but give them indenture instead. We could be in Depression America or in the rust belt. The show has, in fact, become eerily prescient – its song about building a wall to keep the poor at bay sends a chill down the spine.
The story is thin, with the emphasis on mood rather than action. But musically it's a feast – the gorgeous highly-evocative score, full of melancholy and heartache, draws on folk, blues, gospel and vintage jazz, making the tale more accessible to a modern audience. Dialogue melts imperceptibly into songs. Lines that start as spoken, end up in full chorus, and Mitchell's stomping folk songs sound timeless. The band is spread out across the stage – a guitar here, a cello there, combining to create a fantastically warm panoramic sound, and the music is exquisitely orchestrated by Michael Chorney and Todd Sickafoose – I was particularly taken with the accordion solos.
Rachel Hauck's design of a wrought iron balcony, New Orleans style dive bar and revolving stage is both atmospheric and keeps things moving at a fast pace.
Eva Noblezada, who made a name for herself in the title role of Miss Saigon, has the right mix of wariness and innocence as the restrained and soulful Eurydice, who sells her soul for the supposed security of the underworld. Reeve Carney, however seems airily whimsical as Orpheus, the artist, the revolutionary, a boy who thinks he can change the world with his songs. Amber Gray's wonderfully wild and vampish Persephone perfectly partners Patrick Page's business mastermind in Hades, who has an ability to appear both thunderous and sophisticated.
There is also a standout performance from Andre De Shields as the silver suited, grey haired, Hermes, the messenger, god and the very epitome of cool, introducing the story, the band and the characters with a gravelly authority.
This is a tightly choreographed and genuinely inventive show that is sometimes operatic, sometimes bluesy, and in giving the ancient myth a contemporary relevance, pitches romanticism against pragmatism and idealism against cold reality.
Runs until Saturday 26 January 2019 at the Olivier Theatre at the NT.
Box office: 020 7452 3000
Last modified: April 6, 2021