A classic myth retold, Persephone offers a spellbinding depiction of love, heartache and human trauma
Review by Alex Fice
Forget everything you thought you knew about the Greek myth of Persephone, the innocent young girl kidnapped by Hades whilst picking flowers: This latest retelling by Emma Hawkins and Carrie Penn offers a refreshing interpretation that’s rich in romance, comedy and heartache, and takes us on a sensitive exploration of human trauma in the land of the gods.
Described as a folk-rock musical, with an original score by composer Carrie Penn, Jazz Hands Productions‘ Persephone opens with a lullaby-like song that introduces us to our young protagonist – “a face pure and sweet, her dreams without care” – who is about to fall blindly in love with the “shadow man”, with devastating consequences for those living in Olympus. The lead narrator warns us, “There’s a winter night approaching; change is coming round. You can hear it on the wind; you can feel it in the ground.” The rhythmic pace and haunting melodies of this opening sequence confidently establish a folkloric atmosphere, casting a spell over the audience that keeps its hold for the duration of the performance.
The simple staging of this production is not to be underestimated. A highly mobile set – comprised of rectangular wooden frames on wheels that are moved in and out of position by the narrators (as if under the influence of madam fate herself) – helps to maintain pace and lends a fluidity to the action on stage; characters drift, as if in a dream, from one location to the next, winding through the arches in a dance-like manner. For scenes set at the home of Persephony (Sephy) and her mother Demeter, the arches are adorned with rose vines, flowers and washing lines to evoke a cosy domesticity – a symbol of peace and safety, and an allusion to Demeter’s dominion over the natural world. This contrasts effectively with the stark, corporate décor of Zeus and Hera’s abode, which will provide the setting for Persephone’s loss of innocence at the end of the first act.
The interactions between Sephy (played superbly by Bethan Draycott) and Demeter (Emma Starbuck) accurately capture the strained nature of mother-daughter relationships as adolescence encroaches upon adulthood, with Demeter’s mother-knows-best patter triggering her daughter’s desire to rebel and run to the arms of the tattoo-clad Hades (Peter Todd), who she has been meeting in the woods without her mother knowing. These secret encounters with Hades are beautifully carried out with elements of dance carefully woven in to demonstrate the growing connection between the pair. Though it is Hades’ brother Zeus who is god of lightning, sparks fly between Hades and Persephone, with an electric chemistry that brings this production to life.
The authenticity of the pair’s budding romance is vital to the play’s re-interpretation of the original tale; far from snatching Persephone from her home, Hades is seen instead to encourage her to establish some independence from her over-protective mother and seek adventure for herself. The not-so-naïve Persephone is quick to establish a few ground rules before joining him in the underworld, making it clear to Hades that she must be free to return whenever to the little old town whenever she likes.
Other examples of female agency are distributed consistently throughout the play, where they tend to be omitted in canonical texts – an aspect that underlines this production’s contemporary edge. The world-weary Hera, played lavishly by Rachel Smyth, is quick to take action when her husband Zeus impregnates Persephone, threatening to undermine their status as leaders of Olympus. Rather than simply painting her as the scheming baddie, intent on ending the pregnancy out of spite, we see her struggle with painful emotions as she reckons with her husband’s chronic infidelity and the shame this brings her, mixed with her instinctive drive to rescue her relationship from ruin.
A showstopping appearance from Aphrodite (Abi Watkinson) at the end of the first act also provides a poignant depiction of feminine instinct as she comes to Persephone’s aid at a pivotal moment in the story. The most moving song of the entire show, there was a palpable silence from the audience as we listened to the goddess of love’s words of worldly wisdom, brimming with compassion and heartfelt understanding. Aphrodite returns for another show-stealing number in the second act, this time to provide Sephy with a much-needed distraction from her woes, with a jazzy, cabaret-style piece that shows off the goddess’s more flirtatious side.
Whilst the female characters bring a much-needed dash of modernity to this ancient tale, the male characters also have their fair share of standout moments. Lorcan Cudlip-Cook is brilliant as the slimy, predatory Zeus, depicted as a sleazy businessman who is all too aware and utterly unashamed of his foibles. Peter Todd’s Hades provides the perfect foil to Zeus, with a subversive depiction of Hades as a far more sensitive soul than traditional depictions would have us know. He is presented as a hopeless romantic, fearful that his romance with Persephone is too good to be true, and crippled by a sense of powerlessness when forced into doing something he deeply regrets in act two: “I no longer control what I think or say or do. I could burn the whole world down and not have a clue.”
Full to the brim with complex, visceral emotions, and carried by an enchanting original soundtrack with songs that linger in the mind long after the curtain call, this production of Persephone offers much to be admired. Easy to follow, it introduces us to a previously untold version of a classic story that is highly compelling and does what Greek mythology does best, which is speak to modern day issues and the complex nature of human emotions. There are ways it could be improved – such as with the addition of live instrumentals and closer attention to some of the more demanding harmonisations – but with a little polish there is potential for this show to grow far beyond its student remit… if the fates allow.
Persephone is currently touring the UK – see it in London at The Courtyard Theatre from 17-21 August.