Orpheus in Drag: two theatre reviews

I've been to a couple of interesting and thought-provoking musicals lately - in particular, Everybody's talking about Jamie and Hadestown. I'd give each of them slightly over 4 stars: excellent in most ways, but with a few clear flaws. The former is the story of a 16 year old from Sheffield who wants to become a drag queen, and his struggle to wear a dress to the school prom. The latter is a jazz and blues style retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and how he journeys into the underworld to rescue her from Hades. An interesting contrast indeed. (Watch out: spoilers ahead).

The thing I liked most about Jamie was the superb dialogue and characterisation. The musical took place in working-class Sheffield, and while that’s not a setting I’m particularly familiar with, the voice that came through felt very authentic. Jamie's classmates were racially diverse enough to actually look like a typical British state school (half the girls wore hijabs), and they talked to each other in a way which could have been straight out of my own high school (cringe-inducing innuendo included). The main difference was that they were often unrealistically witty, with too many hilarious one-liners - a forgivable sin. Even Jamie's three nemeses were portrayed with nuance and care: one with a schoolyard bully's bluster, one a prim teacher hiding behind rules and propriety, and one (his father) with rough but not overstated bigotry. Meanwhile Jamie’s drag queen mentor wasn't (just) a caricature, but also an ageing man somewhat shocked to see how young they're starting these days.

Anyway, it was fascinating to see a proper representation of a slice of real life that is so rarely shown in the theatre. But the real show-stealer was Jamie’s mother. Her struggle and love and sheer bloody-minded devotion in raising him solo shone through, especially in her ballad He’s my boy. She supported him, she questioned herself, they fought, they reconciled - haven’t we all been exactly there, on one side or the other? At least that’s how it feels, watching them. No saint either of them, but it was their relationship which made the show.

The one weak point, overall? Well, Jamie himself - in some ways. His acting was fabulous, his singing angelic - and yet somehow I couldn't buy into his bildungsroman. Partly, at the start, it was because he was so incredibly camp that it was difficult to see the personality underneath. As the show went on, that wore off. But the reasons why we should care about his quest were still murky. Jamie didn’t seem to have an explanation for it either - for him, cross-dressing wasn’t a sexual thing, it was “just fun”, just...part of who he was? He seemed as uncertain as the audience. I think I believe, on an intellectual level, that desires like these can be very important, psychologically and symbolically. But emotionally speaking, it’s difficult to empathise with such a strong desire to put on women’s clothes. And actually there were several ways in which the script made it harder to do so. Jamie was already happily out and his gayness accepted by almost everyone - so it felt like this was a struggle distinct from his sexual orientation. Of course drag has been a key element of gay culture for decades, but it wasn’t really portrayed that way in the musical (perhaps the link was clearer to the older members of the audience - I, and many other younger audiences members, have primarily been exposed to more “mainstream” gay culture). Then, at the end of the first act, Jamie put on a successful drag show! He’s already on track to be a queen, there’s just one thing he needs to do first - go to his school prom in a dress? It sounds fun, sure, but not a climactic victory or a source of fulfilment. The closest he got to linking it to something deeper was talking about his underlying desire to be “beautiful”. But if anything that’s unhealthy, not empowering. So at the end, I’m happy for Jamie, but I’d have been just as happy if he’d skipped the prom and done another drag show instead.

Ironically enough, my overall impression of Hadestown was in many ways the exact opposite. The details were a little disappointing, and the lyrics were trying so hard to rhyme that they ended up rather facile, but the overall force and weight of the story swept over all of that like the Styx bursting its banks. That was particularly true in the second half (for which the first half was mostly forgettable setup). What happened in the second half, then? A bunch of things that I thought wouldn't be possible:
  1. For the first half of the show, Hades had been portrayed as a ruthless industrialist-style villain - a factory and mine owner who abused his workers and scorned his wife Persephone. It’s a clever tack to take, and makes a strong impression, but at the expense of turning him into something of a caricature. In the second half, though, we get a deeper exploration of their marriage, which helps to humanise him and paves the way for Orpheus’ success. (Hades also had an amazing contrabass - it’s just a pity that the score tried so hard to exploit it that he ended up croaking a lot. Two tones up and he’d have been able to hit some really powerful notes).
  2. In the myth, Orpheus sings to Hades so beautifully that everyone who hears it is touched, and he wins Eurydice' freedom from the underworld. In general, it's bloody hard to write a show based around a transcendentally beautiful song (or painting, or dance, or poem) because you either have to hide it, which is disappointing, or show it, and risk even more disappointment (the portrayal of Jamie’s pivotal drag show fell in the former category). Well, here they showed it, and it really was that good. Orpheus was mostly portrayed as a hipster guitarist type, but on the high notes his voice soared beautifully.
  3. In the myth, Hades is persuaded to let Eurydice go - but for his own mysterious reasons, adds the condition that Orpheus must not look back on the way out, or else Eurydice will be trapped forever. In myths you accept that the gods are whimsical and capricious, but I didn't think the scriptwriters could come up with an explanation for why a realistic Hades would be soft-hearted enough to let them go, but cold-hearted enough to make it conditional. I was wrong.
  4. In the myth, Orpheus almost makes it out of the underworld with Eurydice, but then looks back. I didn't think the musical could portray that without making Orpheus seem like an idiot. I was wrong (for reasons I’ll explain shortly).
  5. Eurydice ends up trapped in the underworld forever, and that's the end of the story. I didn't think they could end the show with that tragedy without it being very downbeat. Again, I was wrong, and will explain why - although this one will take quite a bit of exposition.

The most important divergence from the original story was that in the musical, instead of being sent to the underworld because she died, Eurydice accepted an invitation from Hades because she was hungry and desperate and Orpheus was neglecting her; she was then tricked into signing herself into slavery (there were also hints that Hades seduced her). Orpheus neglected her because he was working on a song that would “bring the spring back” and presumably solve the problems of hunger and hardship on a wider scale. Combined, these changes make Eurydice a much less sympathetic character, although she’s played so well that it’s difficult to blame her.

But I have a bone to pick with the overall message. In the original, Orpheus and Eurydice’s love is pure, and the enemy is Death, humanity's eternal nemesis. Now, the enemy is… Orpheus’ obsession with improving the world, and businesspeople who trick desperate workers into signing binding contracts? It’s not quite the same. As Orpheus and Eurydice leave for the surface, Hades’ other workers sing to them “If you can do it, so can we!” But they can’t, can they? What will they do, learn the lyre in between mine shifts? This is a strategy that doesn’t scale. Insofar as the plot catalyst in this version was Eurydice’s poverty, industrialisation is actually the correct way to solve it, despite the hardships which it causes during the transition period. By contrast, Orpheus’ hope of singing the spring back is never really fleshed out, and got totally derailed by the quest for Eurydice, despite (from an altruistic perspective) being much more important.

There is at least one improvement, though. In the original, Orpheus looked back because he was worried that Hades had tricked him - which sort of makes sense, but isn’t particularly narratively resonant to us today. In the musical, though, he is primarily plagued by self-doubt - is he really the sort of person who deserves to have Eurydice follow him? Who is he to expect such devotion? I’ve seen people follow that line of thought often enough that it really does make sense that it could drive him to ruin everything - especially when it’s conveyed by three Fates circling and taunting him. In that sense, it’s a musical for modern times.

And yet it’s a story that’s over two thousand years old, a fact that kept hitting me throughout the performance. The weight of history pressed down, the loves and fears of people separated from me by millennia. At the end, the narrator brings up the theme of eternal recurrence, to soften the ending: this is an old song, a tragedy we’ve sung before. “Here’s the thing: to know how it ends, and still to begin to sing it again - as if it might turn out this time…” can be optimistic, can be hopeful. God, isn’t that exactly it, though? We know how all the quests to rescue ourselves and our loved ones from the underworld have ended - we know what happened to Gilgamesh, and what happened to Eurydice, and what happened to the alchemists seeking the philosopher’s stone, and what happened to the monks who spent their lives in prayer and preparation for the afterlife. And yet death is a technical problem, and we can solve technical problems, and so maybe - maybe - it’ll be us who sing that song, and change the ending. I work for that.


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