Theatre Review: Hadestown, National Theatre ‘A Disappointment’

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Hadestown has got me all betwixt and between. On one hand, I can see that it has some wonderful elements and ideas – a bluesy jazz musical that anchors a tale as old as time into our near-dystopian future. I love that. But, on the other, the resulting production is extremely disappointing. The great ideas aren’t fully realised, and execution is rarely above average. What’s a girl to think?

And so, I have been sitting on this review a couple of days, wondering whether it should have a glass half-empty or half-full tone. And I’ve specifically been weighing up whether the fact that this show is on the Olivier stage should be a factor in my thinking. Doesn’t the Olivier deserve the right to try out new ideas, come hell or high water? Or, because of the resources at its disposal and the cost of its ticket – and the loftiness of its place in British theatre – is it fair to demand that its productions are exemplary?

My head tells me the latter, my heart says the former. But one thing I know for sure is that the ticket price for the seat I was kindly given by the NT press office had a retail value of £68 – and if I had paid £68 to see this show, I would be pissed off.

We must recognise that theatre has a social and financial cost. I appreciate some critics are resistant to considering this factor in their reviews. I understand that, I really do. But I want to refer to it here as had I seen this with a £20 ticket at a fringe theatre, perhaps I would have been more willing to be supportive. But given all that the NT has at its fingertips, and the cost they expect the audience to pay, the disappointment of this show is really not on.

This musical is set in a near-future dystopian version of the American Deep South where the climate has deteriorated to a point where poverty is widespread. Internal displacement means travellers wander the cold lands, and jazz bars, such as the one this production is set in, become a meeting point for weary citizens.

Enter Hermes (the effortlessly charismatic André De Shields) who is the narrator of this story. He explains that Hades (Patrick Page) the god of the underworld is getting ever richer and ever more demanding, dragging Persephone (Amber Gray) his wife into ever longer stays with him, meaning that the earth’s climate is getting ever colder and ever more desperate in her absence. But there is hope: a young couple – Orpheus (Reeve Carney) and Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) – whose budding romance could finally turn the tables.

It sounds interesting. I suppose from the off I was a bit nervous about the whole dystopian thing as I feel we really have a had quite a lot of this recently across the arts but, hell, I went with it… Especially as I was fascinated to witness the results of this jazz blues musical collaboration between musician Anais Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin.

The problem was, every single element was a disappointment, from the music to the book, from the performances to the choreography, even wardrobe and set design. And its messages about Trump, capitalism and the world today are not subtle. Far too on the nose. And that really hurts me to say but there are issues all over the place.

Eva Noblezada is an exception. She is wonderful as the long-suffering Eurydice. She has the voice of a bird and a beguiling stage presence. But even she cannot make up for Reeve Carney, who is limp with an instantly forgettable voice. He appears miscast and the couple have zero chemistry, which makes any emotional investment in their love affair impossible.

Similarly, for the other couple whose relationship is supposed to hold our attention. Amber Gray gives it all as a fiery Persephone, drinking to numb herself to the coercive control her husband has over her. But Patrick Page gives her nothing back and there is no chemistry to hook ourselves into.

Nor does it stop there, sadly, as The Fates – the trio of goddesses who are permanently perched up on a set of bar stools in the jazz bar – don’t have much to bind them together either. Perhaps it is a lack of interest in their own songs.

Certainly, the score from Anais Mitchell is not quite the collection of big numbers you would usually expect for a musical. And add to that, songs such as Why We Build the Wall are just wince-inducing in their lack of subtlety and nuance. I mean, any reference to a wall needs little explaining even to people who haven’t seen this show – I’m sure you can guess what this is trying to refer to.

The cast is supported by an ensemble who work hard but are given little that is innovative to do. The choreography and movement direction from David Neumann are unoriginal and uninspiring. There has been such brilliant work in this area – and, indeed, David’s own work in An Octoroon is fantastic – but the magic touch seems to have gone missing here.

Add to that, a set design that looks like it came from Once and a wardrobe that insists on demonstrating emphatically we are in a dystopian future by putting the main protagonists in ripped jeans and Doc Marten boots and it all seems just an avalanche of ‘this’ll do.’

This is such a shame. I do still believe that a New Orleans-style jazz musical would be most welcome – atmospheric, moving and wickedly brilliant. But this isn’t that musical, I feel. Maybe Broadway will think differently when it transfers there next year bit this was not good enough for me.

National Theatre, London, to January 26, 2019.
Tickets from £21.
All production images by Helen Maybanks.

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