CW: mentions of rape and miscarriage
The Oxford theatre scene has been awash recently with classical reinterpretations, what with ‘Songs of the Silenced’, ‘Murder in Argos’, and now ‘Persephone’, you could be mistaken for thinking the classics department controlled the theatrical term card. On Thursday night Emma Hawkins’ ‘Persephone’ was on the agenda, and it exceeded all expectations.
With a run time of 165 mins, there is a lot to unpack as we are paraded through the good, the bad, and the godly. Unsurprisingly, the musical’s focal point is its namesake, Persephone, as she encounters the world beyond the sphere of her mother’s influence. In brief, we watch as she meets, is courted by, and falls for Hades. Then, in the second half we are privy to the consequences of a jealous older brother and his pragmatic wife. Yet, throughout the first act it is not our heroine who captivates the audience. Don’t get me wrong Bethan Draycott’s Persephone is a delight, she encapsulates the youthful naivety and purity of the role perfectly. However, not only is there nothing new in the depiction of the good girl falling for the supposed bad boy, but the musical also tries almost too hard to impress her innocence upon the audience. While lyrics such as “unaware of the shadows, she danced” and “kindness can come before reason”, do nicely epitomise Persephone’s whimsy – especially when the former is contrasted with the description of Hades as the “shadow man”- the repetition of the latter becomes a little heavy. Draycott is convincing enough that this lyrical reminder feels unnecessary.
Instead, drive comes not only from our lead narrator, Hermes, and his effective Chorus, but also from our range of gods. Lorcan Cudlip Cook is phenomenal in the role of Zeus, leader of the gods and the ‘Little Old Town’ that forms Olympus. His characterisation of the King of the gods is impressive. Initially, Zeus is charismatic, arrogant, and inescapably alluring. When compared to Peter Todd’s portrayal of an emotional but vanilla, Hades, one cannot help having a favourite brother. As with Persephone’s characterisation, the musical tries too hard to juxtapose the physical image of Hades – black clothes and tattoos – with his drippy personality. However, the corporate power couple dynamic between Cudlip Cook’s Zeus and Maggie Moriarty’s Hera helps to elevate the musical beyond its titular character. The Power Suit-ed Hera is an embittered, questionably alcoholic, foil to Zeus as she struts around the stage judging, manipulating, and salvaging.
To complete our collection of deities are Maddie Hall’s Demeter and Abi Watkinson’s Aphrodite; two opposing forces of nature but with hearts in a similarly right place. Demeter is depicted as strict but fair and the maternal chemistry between Hall and Draycott is convincing. Hall plays the goddess as a sympathetic yet brusque figure – your typical outdoorsy type – who deeply cares for her daughter. On the flip side, Aphrodite is the epitome of metropolitan opulence swanning around in every shade of pink with a cocktail often in hand. Her solo number is as close to what Taylor Swift’s ‘I Did Something Bad’ would sound like if rewritten by Disney. ‘Leave them wanting more’ is a standout performance in the musical’s roster of songs as Watkinson minces across the stage with feather bower in tow. Unfortunately, in the portrayals of Aphrodite and Zeus the musical runs into issues. Both Watkinson and Cudlip Cook draw too much attention away from the core plot, I spent much of the musical desiring a Disney+ style spin off about their past antics.
However, when refocusing on the Persephone/Hades love story – a love story that somewhat deviates from the sentiments of the classical myth – we see that the musical does in fact tackle several pertinent issues, and does so with sensitivity. Following Zeus’ brutal rape of Persephone, she loses all sense of her self-worth and by extension loses herself. The portrayal of this scene has an unexpected nuance as after the assault a high-pitched frequency pervades the theatre providing as close to a sense of shell-shock as the audience could be given. This is sound repeated after Persephone loses her baby in the second act, thus providing a continuity of feeling that resonates with her dual violation.
As seen in this instance, composer Carrie Penn’s marrying of music, or sound, with those on stage is consistently good. The melodic and balletic meeting of Hades and Persephone epitomises their mutual connection and neatly contrasts her stilted, formal dance with Zeus later on. Yet, occasionally something lacks in performance and composition as lines feel forced or unnatural. However, the sung exposition of our narrators (Jak Spencer, Eleanor Dunlop, Emma Starbuck, and Phoebe Tealby-Watson) was impressive. Unlike in some instances, harmonies were no issue for these four and they negotiated the weighty dialogue with ease.
All in all, ‘Persephone’ was an enjoyable watch with the satisfaction of the possibility of happiness for Persephone and Hades, and comeuppance for Zeus, you don’t leave dissatisfied. As someone who does not normally enjoy musicals, I was happily surprised by both the composition and cast performances, as though not perfect they were impressive for a student production. I can only hope that when the next bout of classical reinterpretations come out, they do as well as ‘Persephone’.