Persephone, Oxford Playhouse – Review

The Greek myths have a never-ending influence on western culture, their insights on the human condition seem perennially modern. But while the original legend of Persephone explained the reason for the seasons, the events that led to the solstices were anything but ‘gradual’ or following ‘natural law’…

Clockwise: Jak Spencer, Eleanor Dunlop, Bethan Draycott, Emma Starbuck and Phoebe Tealby-Watson

The brainchild of director Emma Hawkins, and musical director and composer Carrie Penn, Jazz Hands Productions’ Persephone uses the original myth as a jumping-off point for a modern musical, exploring the protagonist’s traumatic experiences through a feminist lens.

Mother and daughter: Demeter (Maddie Hall) and Persephone (Bethan Draycott)

Instead of the tranquil setting in antiquity, Persephone is rooted closer to the present day, albeit still in a rural locale. Whie the shows embraces familiar elements such as Olympus, there are primal traits used that are ubiquitous the world over – the night as a catalyst for change, ‘tradition’ versus ‘freedom’, tensions beneath the surface of things, plus the ‘forbidden’ relationship between avatars of ‘life’ and ‘death’. All these things are very Lorcaesque – the icing on the cake being the principal characters wrestling with “the heart wants what the heart wants”.

Two of a kind: Persephone (Bethan Draycott) and Hades (Peter Todd)

Even before the abduction of Persephone in the original myth, the character of Hades, ruler of the Underworld was never highly regarded by the ancient Greeks. But if one knows the tales of the Olympians in their entirety, time and time again it is their king Zeus (Lorcan Cudlip-Cook) who repeatedly ‘forces his attentions’ on mortals and immortals alike, deflecting natural justice by virtue of his privileged position. It’s a scenario common the world over and provides little comfort, but the ancient Greeks’ insight represents the unvarnished truth.

Marital discord: Hera (Maggie Moriarty) and Zeus (Lorcan Cudlip-Cook)

In this version of the classic tale, the notion of being “easier to ask forgiveness than acquire permission” is Zeus’ advice to his brother Hades (Peter Todd) and something he has much experience of… In contrast, Hades’ conscience wrestles with the ethics of actions without others’ consent, as well as performing questionable actions for the ‘right’ reasons. Of all the characters in the show, he is the most self-reflective, agonising over his choices, though his lack of worldliness makes him malleable to his relatives’ schemes.

Brothers: Hades (Peter Todd) and Zeus (Lorcan Cudlip-Cook)

In her own way, this version of Persephone isn’t worldy-wise either and in some respects her relationship with her mother mirrors the protective mother-rebellious daughter trope within Disney fairy tales. Prone to going out for walks at night alone, this Persephone is a young woman whose secluded upbringing has sheltered her from bad experiences and by the same notion, the absence of ‘wisdom’ that accompanies such knowledge.

Persephone’s mother Demeter (Maddie Hall), the goddess of agriculture, is a different as can be and while not referenced directly, we sense that her protective demeanour stems from personal trauma she hasn’t found closure for. The way she tends to horticultural activities, Demeter has the bearing of a secular ‘Mother Nature’.

Worrying as only a mother can: Demeter (Maddie Hall)

Other notable characters in the show include Aphrodite (Abi Watkinson) the goddess of love who later befriends Persephone, Hermes (Franco Lopez), the messenger of the gods whose diplomatic skills are honed out of necessity (but seldom reflects on the ethics of acting on behalf of Zeus) and Hera (Maggie Moriarty), Zeus’ long-suffering wife, who takes a pragmatic view of her marriage and the first to initiate ‘damage control’. What unites these characters is the theme of personal responsibility and with their knowledge of Zeus’ proclivities, “Does the buck stop here?”

Giving ‘sage’ advice: Hermes (Franco Lopz) and Persphone (Bethan Draycott)

Now onto the cast and crew themselves…

As Persephone, Bethan Draycott draws out the complexeties of the titular character’s nature, both headstrong in her ‘life before’ and (if not completely broken) less self-assured ‘afterwards’. On the strength of her nuanced singing voice, it’s easy to see why she was cast in the role.

Clockwise: Bethan Draycott, Eleanor Dunlop, Phoebe Tealby-Watson, Jak Spencer and Emma Starbuck

Peter Todd’s Hades complements Draycott’s Persephone, two sides of the same coin, and also visibly the ‘ying’ to Zeus’ ‘yang’. Far from depicting the king of the gods as a ‘monster’, Cudlip-Cook fleshes out the character’s inherent ‘charm’ and persuasive ‘logic’. In a different life, this version of Zeus could have been a Byronesque figure.

While Lopez’s Hermes has a breezy personality, both Hall’s Demeter and Moriarty’s Hera visibly bear the weight of years of secrets and foregoing personal happiness. Watkinson’s mutifaceted Aphrodite is both concerned ‘sister’ and friend, but when not concerning herself with the welfare of others, indulges her appetite for imbibing and having a good time.

Female bonding: Persphone (Bethan Draycott) and Aphrodite (Abi Watkinson)

And while the Chorus/Narrators (Eleanor Dunlop, Emma Starbuck, Phoebe Tealby-Watson, Jak Spencer) are not at the forefront of proceedings, their perennial presence fleshes out the pastoral setting and provides confidantes for the characters during their darkest hours.

Drawing from a range of musical styles, Persephone is an ambitious musical, with plenty to recommend. Max Penrose’s choreography also needs to be mentioned, as his inspired take on character movement (particularly between Draycott and Todd) elevates the whole show.

“I could have danced all night…” Choreography by Max Penrose

Not all musicals ‘immediately’ grab the audience from the get-go, but Persephone puts its higher profile peers to shame with its readily memorable songs and the best of modern versus classical storytelling.

© Michael Davis 2021

Persephone ran at the Oxford Playhouse from 11th-13th November

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