by Monim Wains
[CW: mentions of mental illness, sexual violence, and miscarriage]
A classic tale rewritten with lucid modern lyrics, sung fantastically throughout. That was a fun evening.
Persephone is a story that has probably brought many a classicist to tears, with origins far back in Ancient Greece. But Emma Hawkins’s writing brings the story to life, and makes the characters up to date. The plot is an interplay between gods, who have a hierarchy even on Mount Olympus. The more manipulative side of the powerful is brought out, with the weak having to suffer the consequences. If you are familiar with the myth, then you will know that these consequences are more than relevant in light of our increasing realisation of the discrimination that women face. Persephone does not shy away from this. Rather, it is reassuring to see how the characters realise and humanise the emotions, as well as how they respond (some of them, at least).
The story follows Persephone (Bethan Draycott), first taking a stroll in the woods, where a dark figure meets her gaze. She is curious, and asks to know more. But her questions are dismissed, and the man is bashful, until his identity is finally revealed. It is Hades (Peter Todd), god of the underworld. You would not expect one of the most powerful gods in the pantheon to blush so much for another, but Persephone’s reputation is well known, and her beauty strikes Hades a blow. Their first meeting, and a graceful dance in the woods, are the first sign of the strength of the choreography. Max Penrose’s reputation preceded him, and it was good to see it for real.
Without giving away too much of the plot, what follows from there is really, unfortunately, what happens to Persephone, as the gods misuse their powers. Though the divine are given very grounded personalities in the acting, and I found Zeus’s portrayal by Lorcan Alexander Cudlip Cook the most characterful of all. His arrogance and ego come through horribly well. I mean that as a compliment.
The depth of the feelings that grow as the story worsens for Persephone were reflected in the writing. From love to tragedy, empowerment, and anger, the emotions shine through the words. There were several times when I was struck by the lyricism of the musical pieces. It is easy to forget that the script is student-written, but Hawkins deserves another applause.
Lyrics would, however, struggle without voices to sing them. Fortunately, Persephone‘s cast delivered, with each main character getting a solo to highlight their ability. I was impressed by each voice, and the melodies were sung with emotive expression, making it easy to follow the thoughts of each player. The core relationship between Persephone and Hades was performed with a wide range, beginning with the awkwardness of a first date, falling to treachery, before recovering, in time, to an amicable agreement. The characters grow as the story went on, and so did the performances, with several notes properly belted out, particularly in the second act. Persephone’s ‘Call Me A Fool’ would be my pick for the highlight of the evening. Along with the higher, faster-paced beats of the lighter songs, the darker pieces were sung just as well, with lighting and atmosphere to support the actors on stage. Persephone’s tragedy is brought to the fore by Draycott, as well as the sadness in Todd’s Hades.
The story’s heart is the relationships between the gods, so we can continue with those. Hades and Zeus have a sibling rivalry with stakes far higher than what mere mortals could fathom, but their dialogue and interactions were entertaining and volatile, depending on the time. Both were played with clear personality; Cook’s acting and Todd’s singing were of particular note, I felt.
In between the two men is Hera (Maggie Moriarty), tired of having to clean up Zeus’s messes. With her frustration, annoyance, and more than a hint of divine pride, she is a goddess no one dared to cross in Olympus, and I could see why… Her character’s strength came with a stage presence to match, and Moriarty held the space powerfully. Though Hera’s actions in the story are difficult to justify, the writing lets you see how it would be what she would do. The interplay between her, Zeus, and Hades is great.
Throughout the whole myth, Demeter (Maddie Hall) and Aphrodite (Abi Watkinson) are perhaps the only characters to really care for Persephone, as a mother and a friend, respectively. Their characters are, I think, what make the myth redeemable, and it was a necessary balance on what would otherwise be a very defeating tale. Just as much as Zeus’s actions were shown to deserve disgust, Demeter and Aphrodite deserved praise. Demeter’s pain as a mother, and her vengeance in anger, were hard to miss. Hall’s voice was powerful enough to get that across, though I hope she can rest it in time as well!
Hermes (Franco Lopez) and the narrators brought together the story, connecting pieces and providing exposition where needed (though the story played out with very little exposition needed). There were some nice harmonies between them, and I have no idea how they can sing while carrying a sofa off the stage.
A point to note, however, would be that lines were sometimes difficult to hear. From what I could tell, this seemed to be a technical issue more than something on stage, so it can hopefully be remedied for future showings. It was not a constant problem, but the first few words following a character’s entrance were often lost, and I found Hermes’s lines difficult to pick up. Not too much information was lost in those words, but it is an improvement that can be made.
Other than that, however, the presentation of the earth and the underworld was very cleverly done – I did not expect the trees to lift into the air! It is good to know that the underworld lies below, with roots in the sky. The technical crew often get missed, but it was a good student production, and I would think that the transitions will get even smoother with the performances. I have done the tiniest of technical work at school, and the scale of a production that is as large as Persephone deserves respect.
The choreography complemented the songs as well. Highlights would be Persephone and Hades’s first dance in the woods, and Aphrodite’s ‘Leave Them Wanting More’, which got the loudest applause of all. Watkins as Aphrodite must have had a challenge preparing for that, but it paid off well.
As for the music, each piece flowed in and out, and the songs were boosted by some enjoyable beats to boot. The matching of the mood between the melodies and the words was done sensitively; it is again impressive to know that it was composed originally. Kudos to Carrie Penn.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the producer, Ana Pagu. The performance has clearly been put together in a very organised way, and though I know that it is the work of a whole team of people, it is the producer who leads the way.
All in all, the cast’s voices are probably what stands out most from the performances. Draycott’s range in Persephone’s love, sorrow, and defiance, were brilliant throughout. And even more so, in my view, the writing deserves notice.
Persephone is a great student musical, and some of the team deserve professional-level praise. It is an enjoyable retelling that takes an ancient myth, and presents it in a way that a modern audience will find relatable. The light is made light, and the darker themes are handled well.
Persephone runs till Saturday 13 November at 7:30pm, at the Oxford Playhouse.
Disclosure: I am Maddie Hall’s (currently very proud) college dad, though I did not properly realise her role in the musical until the performance, and I have been in many a Computer Science tutorial with Max Penrose. The review ticket was provided free of charge; thanks to Ana Pagu for arranging that.