Rachel Chavkin certainly made the most of her time in London recently – before directing a new production of The American Clock at the Old Vic, she oversaw the transfer of Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown to the National Theatre. I’m not quite sure how I managed to miss this one… The National’s season announcements do often seem to come out of nowhere, and then you have quite a while to wait for the general on-sale (which usually coincides with the tightest part of the month, or after I’ve already budgeted for everything) – which always seems to be a terrible experience from what I can tell. I do remember that the performance schedule for this show was incredibly unhelpful, as they’d be on a break whenever I was free (and vice versa), and it was obviously rather difficult to get your hands on Friday Rush tickets.
Which is an incredible shame for me, having already managed to miss out on The Great Comet in New York, and because I’ve always been interested by Greek myth & legend. The show is described as a ‘folk-opera’, and follows the story of Orpheus and Eurydice; when she dies, he follows her to the Underworld to try & get her back – and Hades only agrees to set her free if Orpheus doesn’t look back as he leaves to check she’s following. Hadestown also features Hades’ relationship with Persephone – in Greek legend, because Persephone eats some pomegranate seeds she is doomed to spend half the year above ground, and the other half with Hades (the story was used to explain the change in seasons).
Obviously this is a re-telling that uses these stories as a basis rather than a perimeter; the setting is part Great Depression, part post-apocalyptic – Orpheus is a struggling musician living on the breadline, and Hades runs a mysterious underground factory.
Whilst a lot of the music isn’t especially memorable (Way Down Hadestown is an exception), that isn’t an integral part of every musical; being able to remember a tune after one listen is more a test for a pop song, as its catchiness (or lack of) could make all the difference in its commercial success – and therefore make or break the artist’s career. What’s important for songs in musicals is that they serve the purpose of the show; they help to tell the story, act as a release of emotion, and set the mood. Just from listening to the cast recording you can tell this ticks all three boxes!
Given that most of the songs don’t immediately implant themselves in your mind, it is difficult to pick standout moments, however the three different Epic numbers performed by Orpheus are hauntingly beautiful and very atmospheric – and Road to Hell is a foot-stomper that kicks off proceedings in great style, introducing characters and setting the tone for the whole thing. The Fates persuading Eurydice to accept Hades’ offer of a ticket to the underworld in When the Chips are Down is another snappy number.
The folksy, jazzy feel to the music definitely evokes the spirit of New Orleans; a fitting place to think of, given its religious & cultural history. The variety of voodoo associated with the place at one point gave rise to the belief that there were zombies in Louisiana – the idea of rebirth or coming back from the dead, and various forms of faith feature in the show.
Now that I’ve seen the magic Rachel Chavkin can make in her direction (I ended up seeing The American Clock several times) and heard this cast recording, I’m even more annoyed with myself for not managing to see it. Let’s hope that an opportunity for me to rectify my mistake arises at some point in the future…
Hadestown (Original Cast Recording [Live]) is available in the National Theatre bookshop and online via Amazon & iTunes – you can also stream the album through Spotify. Hadestown runs at the Walter Kerr Theatre until 1 September 2019.