Sometimes a trip to hell can feel a little like heaven. And although not every step of the journey is divine in this folk opera, inspired by Greek mythology and written by the recording artist Anais Mitchell, there are more than a few moments that feel transcendent.
Rachel Chavkin’s production, all dressed up by costume designer Michael Krass in leather and ripped denim, takes place in a post-apocalyptic speakeasy. Here, gods and mortals mingle, and a drum-tight, white-hot band thumps out numbers that straddle steamy New Orleans jazz, blues, pop, heartfelt ballads and big American country rock. Our master of ceremonies is Hermes, an ineffably cool, super-sharp Andre De Shields, his swept-back hair silvered like his pointed boots and glittering waistcoat, his eyes glinting with wit and wisdom. Under his serene, quietly compassionate gaze, the characters assemble: young drifter Eurydice, sweet and tough in equal measure (an entrancing Eva Noblezada), as well as Orpheus, the wistful wandering musician who falls in love with her and in turn wins her love (Reeve Carney). Three Fates, intoning a siren call of rhapsodic harmony, circle them. And wild, sensual Persephone (superlative Amber Gray), wife of hell’s king Hades, loose-limbed with a voice like sand and honey and a passion for the earth and all its creatures, for strong drink and for song and dance.
Climate change and pollution blow like a sultry zephyr through these early sequences. Then Patrick Page’s imposing dark lord Hades, with a voice so deep it seems to set the whole theatre vibrating, arrives to escort his reluctant wife back to the underworld – and new political resonances thrust themselves to the fore. Mitchell first wrote Hadestown back in 2006, long before the orange idiot was installed in the White House. But it’s impossible not to think of Trump when Hades leads a number that attempts to justify the erection of a vast wall around his kingdom – an argument based on fear, hatred and ignorance. Rachel Hauck’s set design, which makes thrilling use of the Olivier’s drum revolve, plunges us into a murky industrial hellhole. David Neumann’s choreography turns grimy, sweat-sheened limbs into pumping pistons, weary bodies into creaking cogs, all part of a relentless infernal machine.
There are flaws. Structurally, the piece needs more urgency, a more persistent sense of what is at stake. Carney’s Orpheus is a little too tame, too boy-bandishly artfully dishevelled, his song – which must melt the heart and win the compassion of the long-hardened cynic Hades – not quite the sublime seduction it should be, with it’s la-la lyrics and MOR melody. Yet this is a quirky, invigorating work of music theatre, performed with grit and verve, and Gray is a phenomenal force of nature. Fiery, full-blooded – and ultimately, uplifting.