Jazz Hand’s musical production of Persephone premiered last night at the Oxford Playhouse.
The tale of Persephone is a creation myth from Ancient Greece. When fair Innocent Persephone, beloved and protected by her mother Demeter, becomes embroiled in the famously reckless capers of the gods we learn how the world came to have seasons.
When Hades, king of the underworld falls in love with Persephone his brother Zeus starts to lose control of his world and his meddling threatens to turn the Olympic pantheon upside down.
Musicals can sometimes be guilty of trivialising a good story. The Greek myths have already suffered like this, popularised by Walt Disney and simplified for textbooks. Persephone absolutely does not. Here the reputations of the gods may not be what you’re expecting. Virtuous Persephone is given to the occasional fib.
Hades’ goodness is another example of the innovative, thoughtful interpretations of Emma Hawkins’ production. The rapacious abduction of Persephone is an old chestnut in painting and literature based on the myth of Persephone. In this telling Zeus tells his brother to take Persephone before somebody else does, “It is easier to apologise than to ask permission” he urges, but good Hades persuades her his own way.
Generous dialogue between the song and the dance is rich and crafted with colloquial humour and contemporary foibles which capture the immortal lives of the Olympians and their timeless themes. As Zeus and Hera talk on the telephone, he facetiously suggests she use a new invention “called the stairs”.
Composer Carrie Penn’s score combines classical, folk and rock music in a way that complements the eclecticism of the personalities without being obtrusive.
The eight-piece orchestra in the pit, the meticulously rehearsed performances and first-rate voices make the production quality outstanding. Even the commentary of the programme betrays passionate attention to detail.
I walked away gripped by personalities and conundrums of the gods that had not occurred to me before. Hades is a saint in the story, driven by a determined love and respect for Persephone. Zeus reminds him that while he may be a sweet and regular guy, his subjects are all asleep, not causing trouble like his lot.
The gentle contortions and reinventions of the myth enrich a leeched understanding of the depth of these wonderful mythic characters. The accomplished, ambitious staging (with a cast of 11), Max Penrose’s choreography, and Penn’s daring and original approach make Persephone a slick, substantial and thrilling show.