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Venue: Olivier, National Theatre
Town: London
Date: 28/11/18

Music, lyrics and book by Anais Mitchell
Developed and directed by Rachel Chavkin
Produced by Rachel Quinney
Olivier, National Theatre till 26th January

The set is a multi-layered cacophony of Americana. A seven-piece band casually slip into their places as the house lights dim. Hermes the messenger (Andre De Shields) saunters on stage with reptilian grace and, flaunting a bejewelled waistcoat, greets the audience. The massive room shrinks, becomes intimate, as a congregation forms. Trombone (Nathaniel Cross) strikes up a jazzy riff as the 'The Road to Hell' introduces the company, and the tale starts to unfold.

The bucolic Persephone (Amber Gray) is the goddess of summer, but married to dour Hades (Patrick Page), whose brooding menace steals every scene. Theirs is the story of a great love turned to darkness.

The gauche Orpheus (Reeve Carney) is the writer of the song that will free summer. Eurydice (Eva Noblezada), a hard bitten and independent woman, reluctantly falls in love with the penniless muso, during the brief summer that is all that Hades' raging jealousy will allow. Their love dance is exquisite, although could have been a little shorter.

But then winter comes. And no-one can escape, as the three Fates (Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher, Gloria Onitiri), weave themselves into all hard choices. Obsessed by his art (or maybe just another man-boy loser), Orpheus does not see that Eurydice, made vulnerable by her feelings for him, is slipping away.

The drama is propelled by ceaseless movement. Credit to Rachel Hauck for a set that enables this, and to choreographer David Newman for drawing out a symphony of raw, brutal grace and eloquence from the perfectly cast chorus, as set and dancers move as one.

Rejected by Persephone, Hades seeks out Eurydice and seduces her (Hey Little Songbird). But the nature of her bargain is exposed (The Wall) as the bonds of damnation bind her. Classic song follows classic song, honed by Mitchell's relentless solo gigging and performer's instincts.

The broken-hearted Orpheus follows his lost love, and sings before the lord of the underworld for her soul (Epic III). Hades, perfectly illustrating the moral ambiguity of hard times, makes a devil's bargain with him. Hope blooms and success seems inevitable, until the very last minute, when Orpheus is betrayed by his own doubt.

Written, performed and re-written over twelve years, the work is defined by the trust between folk singer Mitchel, and rising star director Chavkin, who resisted all safe options, did not dilute the raw genius of the vision and has facilitated something wonderful.

This is an epic, tragic poem, performed though dance and music, ostensibly set in a surreal extrapolation 1930s US; but the linked metaphors comprising the story are timeless.

Mitchell's writing is life-affirmative, and she is at her best as she stays within and redefines this ancient genre with clear eyed passion. Occasional forays into contemporary allegory are less convincing and, perversely, dilute the applicability and power of the piece.

The story is the thing, here told clearly, and accessible and inspirational to all, with a convincing tragic climax, before Hermes, by now an old friend, brings us home in a tour de force of timing and grace. 'It's a sad song,' he sings, after a long pause, and there is an audible catch of breath from the audience, as tears well up.

No spoilers, but don't leave during the curtain call. And many of the audience stayed until the band had finished playing the final instrumental and gave them their own, deserved, standing ovation.

Performed with love and passion by a company that is far more than the sum of its formidable parts, this is a refreshing, enjoyable and unpretentious work, and packs a hefty cathartic punch.

Laura Thomas

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