On the 17th of November I had the rare pleasure of watching the London National theatre performance of ‘Hadestown’, with song and book by Anais Mitchell. After the original album and cast recording of this musical had stayed with me for over half a year, I finally had the opportunity to watch the music tie together into the whole story. As there is nothing in the ways of a live recording of the show out there, I fear I will soon forget the nuances of the performance and would hence like to fill in the details most rough synopsis leave out.
The play begins in an urban worker’s bar, with the company of blue-collar strugglers and Orpheus (Reeve Carney) himelf, in denim jacket and accompanied by his trusty guitar, seated at tables around the stage. Hades (Patrick Page) and Persephone (Amber Gray) sit above on a balcony, watching on with godly distance.
in ‘Road to Hell I’, Hermes (Andre de Shields) introduces himself and the cast of characters which is halfway interrupted when “hungry young girl” Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) enters the building. She is closely followed by the Fates who illustrate her lone lifestyle of travelling ‘anywhere the wind blows’ to search for scraps of food, hints of warmth, and a match for her single white candle. Eurydice is an independent and strong willed girl and quickly catches the eye of wide-eyed idealist and poet Orpheus, who can be seen on the side assembling a paper flower.
This he hands to Eurydice with the bold request to ‘come home with [him]’, upon which she identifies him as a player and familiar character who seems to think highly of himself. She asks who he is, and Orpheus exclaims that he is ‘the man who is going to marry [her].’
Playfully, Eurydice questions how said hopeless romantic would envision providing for his apparent love at first sight (‘Wedding Song’), after which they finally introduce themselves by name.
Orpheus tells Eurydice that he is working on a song that will change the world and bring spring back again, after the practically inclined Eurydice laments the fact that winters are long and hard and the summer times short and erratic. She demands that Orpheus prove his claims and show her what he can do.
Orpheus, claiming that it isn’t much since the song isn’t finished yet, can be seen stepping across the room on tables that workers push beneath his feet like laying a carpet of clouds for his transcendent melody. This is the main chorus and musical theme of Orpheus, and when he is finished with the strip of melody, a red flower blooms in his hand.
Eurydice is amazed by this magic and believes Orpheus could truly bring spring back if he finishes his song, and Hermes cuts in to ask where he got that melody from. Orpheus explains that ‘it just came to him one day’ and upon Hermes’ request tells the room what he knows of the gods (‘Epic I’). Unlike in the cast recording, it is also affirmed that the arguments between Hades and Persephone are causing the deadly weather and Hermes reveals that the melody Orpheus conceived resembles the song Hades sang to Persephone when he first fell in love.
Persephone herself finally makes her way down, exiting the train from Hadestown, and the company celebrates the beginning of spring and end of the hard times. (‘Living it up on Top’). During that summer, Orpheus and Eurydice fall deeply in love and Eurydice opens up about her wish to no longer be alone and be ‘[held] forever’ in “All I’ve ever known” in an intimate front of stage scene that has Orpheus and Eurydice embracing beneath the summer sky. Orpheus responds by saying he has never known loneliness, always surrounded by the comforts of a crowd, but despite not knowing her yet he feels that he has ‘known [her] forever.’
The lovers are awoken by a train arriving in town and Persephone being summoned back to the underworld (‘Way down Hadestown I’). In which the Fates can be seen first tempting Eurydice with the illusion of wealth that seems to surround the train and Hades himself, who glamorously steps into the crowd in suit and sunglasses to greet his wife.
Together, they sink into the ground.
Orpheus, seeing Persephone and Hades interact, is inspired to understand Hades’ actions. (‘Epic II’).
We see the beginnings of winter play out on stage in two places as Hades and Persephone argue about the state of Hadestown, whilst Orpheus, feeling the too-early winter wind, sits down in earnest to finish his song (‘Chant I’). The workers perform like part of the machinery, moving in circles around the godly couple with bent backs and erratic, sharp motions. Eurydice goes out to find food and firewood for the winter and asks several times if Orpheus is finished, to the answer of ‘not yet’, and an absent minded brush of his hand against hers when she tries to embrace him. Eurydice fights the elements to prepare for winter, saying she has ‘never seen a sky like this’, as a storm brews between Hades and Persephone. She is finally caught in the storm that rips the cloak from her body and Hades, who swears to find someone ‘grateful for her fate’ that might ‘want his love’, appears before Eurydice with an offer to come to the underworld (‘Hey Little Songbird’).
The Fates appeal to Eurydice to think of her own survival (‘When the Chips are down’) whilst she thinks about her decision, weighing in her hands both Orpheus’ red flower and the two silver coins given to her by Hades.
Orpheus, who has not looked up once from his notebook, knows none of this, and Eurydice decides to go (‘I’m gone’), leaving the red flower behind on the ground as she turns away from the life Orpheus had offered.
Just when she is swallowed up by the underworld, Orpheus jumps up announcing that he thinks he finished his song. He finds Hermes instead, who tells him that Eurydice is ‘six feet under’ and that if he truly desired, he could find ‘a way around the back’ to Hadestown. Orpheus makes his long way through blue darkness and wandering lanterns to find Eurydice. (‘Wait for me’). When he finally reaches the underworld, the wall at the back of the stage opens to allow the bright light of Hadestown to illuminate his back, resembling the gates of hell parting. Lights can be seen approaching and Orpheus runs off stage to hide.
We see Eurydice following Hades, who makes a show of his power by commanding the workers. (‘why we build the wall’) and finally tells Eurydice that there are papers to be signed. She steps up the balcony and into his office, and Hades ‘close[s] the door behind.’
As he vanishes, Persephone steps forward with a bitterly hurt expression but quickly seeks revenge for his betrayal by feeding the moral of the workers with contraband from the surface world. (‘Our Lady of the Underground’).
Eurydice reemerges, dressed like the workers and grinning with Enthusiasm. She jump amongst the workers to revel in her freedom, and learns the horrible truth of her mistake as the Fates taunt her for falling into Hades’ trap (‘Way down Hadestown II’).
Left alone, Eurydice sings of her regrets (‘Flowers’), at the end of which Orpheus appears and reaches for her, declaring that all will be alright and that he is here to take her home. Eurydice is glad to see him, but tells him through tears that there was something he didn’t understand. He is torn away by the workers and the Fates as Hades steps out from the Balcony demanding to know who he thinks he is and what he thinks he is doing. He tells Orpheus to turn back the way he came and when he says he will not be leaving alone, a chase ensues in which Orpheus is beaten down. (‘Papers’).
The Fates taunt Orpheus with his helplessness and tell him it is pointless to struggle. (‘Nothing Changes’).
When Hades finally leaves them in the knowledge that Eurydice chose this life away from him, Orpheus, broken on the floor, questions the truth of those words. (‘Is it true’) and raises the workers into a rebellion as he points out how the wall doesn’t bring them freedom, and they cannot even stand straight to help a brother that is suffering. The song ends in a powerful, motivated chant as Orpheus leads the workers away.
In the meantime, Persephone, who heard the poet’s heartfelt song, appeals to Hades to let him go, as Eurydice means ‘nothing to him’ but ‘everything to [Orpheus]’. The couple sings of the torment their marriage brings them and their helplessness to free themselves from that sadness. (‘How long’).
Orpheus rises from the ground with the chanting workers by his side and reaffirms that he will not be leaving without Eurydice.
Hades, hearing the commotion, steps down and shares his wisdoms with Orpheus in Chant II, in which Persephone and Hades are walking on opposite sites of a circle, and Orpheus is caught between them, trying to find his way to Eurydice who is similarly kept away.Persephone looks at her husband in bitter disgust as she listens to him sing about capturing a woman in golden chains and the rift between them in greater than ever as she realizes his pitiless nature in the face of the broken hearted couple so similar to their own younger selves. She tells Eurydice that ‘love is not a gilded cage’ and encourages her to trust in Orpheus.
Hades agrees that ‘since [his] wife is such a fan, he will listen to one more song and give Orpheus the chance to convince him. He sets a stool down at the edge of the stage and all goes quiet whilst Orpheus steps up and raises his voice to sing of the love Hades once had for Persephone. (‘Epic III’). Hades tries to interrupt when Orpheus first sings the very melody Hades once sung to Persephone, demanding to know ‘where did you hear that song?’, but Orpheus does not let him stop the music, and alongside him, all of Hadestown joins into the song to call into question everything Hades has become in his quest to regain the love of his wife and maintain his power as King of the underworld.
As they finally sing the melody together, Hades glances at Persephone with all his vulnerable love and as the song ends, they gently touch hands together. The gods share one dance (‘Lover’s desire’). Hermes comments that, whilst he does not know what should happen after, he knows that Orpheus brought the world back into tune in that moment.
Orpheus and Eurydice embrace, and she tells him to take her home, having decided that life with him would be worth the struggle. They turn to watch Hades and Persephone and stand side by side, hopeful that Hades changed his mind. ‘He has to let us go.’
When they finally approach Hades to ask that very question, Hades answers after a long silence:
“I don’t know.”
The couple, alongside the workers and Persephone, retreat from stage as the Fates crowd around Hades to remind him of the fate that might befall his kingdom (‘Word to the wise’).
Hades forms a plan based on the feelings he shares with Orpheus. He realizes that the poet is made brave by his love as he once had been, and decides to ‘let them think that they have one’ (‘His Kiss, the Riot’). He summons Hermes to his side and whipsers a condition in here. Hermes then approaches the waiting Orpheus and Eurydice.
“Well the good news is, he said you can leave.”
He announces that there are bad news as well, and explains to Orpheus that he may lead Eurydice out of the underworld, but they ‘won’t walk hand in hand, arm by arm’. Orpheus has to walk ahead, and Eurydice must stay behind at all times.
They consider whether they are truly committed to the challenge and in the song ‘Promises’ reaffirm their love for each other despite their poverty and previously broken vows. Now united, Orpheus turns to Hermes to ask if it really is not a trick, and Hermes affirms that the conditions are ture. He gives Orpheus a warning to mind the thoughts cloudinghis heads and be cautious on the journey. (‘Wait for me II’).
Orpheus prepares to leave, with the workers singing to him to lead the way so they may follow, raising Orpheus up as their saviour and leader. He shakes hands with Hades on his way out and is wished well by Persephone, and the song transitions into the dark violin melody of ‘Doubt comes in’.
Orpheus wanders in darkness, a similiar blue light from before, and the fates crowd around him and taunt him with the possibility that he is not as brave as he thought. ‘who do you think you are?’ He questions whether he is truly in a position to lead anyone, yet alone Eurydice who is following him into a life of poverty. Eurydice disappears from stage whenever the darkness swallows her and Orpheus pauses, close to turning around, when his love sings to him to keep going.
Finally the stage grows lighter and we see the golden light of the surface world shining at Orpheus. He slowly approaches the last few steps, nearing the illumination and safety of the world above, with an earnest smile on his lips and hopeful eyes. But just as he sets foot on the final step, he suddenly turns around, and the darkness reveals Eurydice, right behind.
“It’s you”, he says. “It’s me”, she responds. She reaches a hand out and cries his name, then begins to fall away into the Underworld. As Orpheus rushes towards her to grab her hand, the ground sinks faster and faster and she is ripped away. Orpheus sinks to his knees next to the gaping hole in the ground.
The stage returns to the beginning, with the surface world workers streaming into the bar, and Hermes steps up to announce the ending of the story and the hope with which it started again. (‘Road to Hell II’).
Orpheus finally rises and wipes his tears. He silently walks off stage, never to be seen again as he wanders the world alone. We see Eurydice walk into the bar once more to ask for a match for her candle, and Persephone arrive in town, as ‘spring has come again’, implying the cycle of retelling the same tale in the hope that it ‘might turn out different this time’
After the crowd applauds, the cast steps up to the edge of the stage to sing a final toast to Orpheus (‘Raise a cup’).
I intent to do some mor writing on this musical. If you can at all get a chance to see this live, I highly recommend you do so. It is well worth the threatre visit.