★★★A Perplexing Persephone

Simon Ward reviews Persephone at The Courtyard Theatre

The premise of this new musical retelling of the Persephone story (written by Emma Hawkins with music by Carrie Penn) is to take the various versions of the myth and reimagine it for our time. As such, the costumes and design suggest a timeless present – there are no togas or Greek columns in evidence, for example. Apart from a striking assemblage of tattoos on Hades’ face, hands and neck the overall look is decidedly ordinary. The set, too, is minimalist, with doorframes hung with flowers to indicate woods and gardens. The downside of this approach is that it makes it difficult to identify one’s location – Olympus, the Underworld and Earth all end up looking much the same, and much laborious furniture moving is required to indicate a change of scene. There is also less of a sense of what is at stake for Persephone to be removed to the Underworld. We also lost something of the basic sense of the original story – if one approached it knowing nothing of any versions of the myth, it would be a struggle to follow at times.

Photo credit: Paul Ashley

In contrast to the backstabbing, indolent and scheming world of Olympus, Persephone (Bethan Draycott) has been taken away by her mother, Demeter (Emma Starbuck) to live quietly in the woods. But, of course, she is bored and longing for ‘Tomorrow’, and is thrilled one night to encounter a mysterious stranger, Hades (Peter Todd), with whom she quickly falls in love. They share a love-dance together which is the most touching and apposite use of dance in the show, and the high point of their relationship. In this version it appears that Perspehone willingly joins Hades in the Underworld but it is really hard to understand why as they don’t seem to have much to say to each other. Furthermore, to add to the complications, there would be a huge age difference and he is her uncle. I suspect this may be symptomatic of a wider problem in the whole piece of trying to read ancient myths through a modern sensibility.

Photo credit: Paul Ashley

Persephone’s dalliance and disappearance causes problems to the gods, and Zeus (Lorcan Cudlip-Cook) in particular, when Demeter, goddess of the harvest, goes to find her, leaving famine in the land. He dispatches Hermes (Franco Lopez) to bring Persephone back from the Underworld to try to resolve the problem. When he does, Zeus, almost on a whim, to spite his brother, and because he can, rapes Persephone. This is handled rather well, and, in the most well-worked argument of the play, Persephone later rails against all those complicit in the crime, as well, of course, as Zeus himself.

As the play draws to a close there is a definite sense of menace – we return to Persephone’s earlier world of innocence, but she, and everything around her, has now irrevocably changed.

Persephone played at The Courtyard Theatre from 17th-21st August.

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