Modernized versions of classics are not exactly difficult to find on the London stage: from & Juliet at the Shaftesbury Theatre to Stephen Fry's Mythos at the Palladium, there is no shortage of attempts to musicalize and update legends and masterworks. Some succeed and some fail, but Orpheus in the Underworld's strengths lie in its' ability not only to capture the essence of a classical myth, but to improve upon an already existing portrayal. The 2019 version of Offenbach's 1958 Orpheus in Hell is a delightfully fresh, funny, and sharp take on a classical and well-known myth, accompanied by breathtaking sets, memorable songs, and a poignant story. There is a balanced layering act between Rice's aesthetic command, Offenbach's narrative musicality, and Vigil's ancient chronicles that makes the production simultaneously enchanting and complex.
It is possible, of course, to argue that Offenbach already did 50% of the work for Rice: after all, he is the one who wrote the original 1958 score. But Rice's production builds upon his work in such a fashion that the overall tone is so different, and an entirely different story is being told. Rice's production is unsympathetic in the best of ways: the Gods are not, as in Offenbach's version, helpful to mortals because of some natural or intrinsic greatness of character, but because they are a bunch of nepotistic, weak-willed drunks, interested only in serving their own personal causes. Orpheus and Eurydice are also transformed: a tragedy in the first act introduces them as a deeply flawed and unhappy couple on the brink of divorce. Eurydice falls for Pluto not because she is a plaything of the Gods ready to be passed around, but because she is alone, upset, and suffering. The end here is not happy, despite the bright colours, flashing lights, and vivid costuming, a sharp and satirical nod to Offenbach's weirdly optimistic ending. Rice's updated character choices add a dimension that explains and compliments many elements of both the original myth and Offenbacs' interpretation, making both the narrative and the personal dynamics of characters more remarkable, resounding, and ultimately relatable.
I have written previously about the disappointingly bland London production of Hadestown, a show graced by good aesthetics by ultimately overshadowed by a less-than-compelling story, unlikeable characters, and rather forgettable music. Even when Hadestown's 1940s' New Orleans aesthetic was pleasant enough to look at, it didn't quite connect to the message being told. This is not the case with Orpheus in the Underworld: Rice's glitzy Beverly Hills/Las Vegas setting both compliments and represents the tone of the music beautifully. The sterile turquoise-and-blue of the Beverly Hills Hotel-esque swimming pool represents the disconnected privilege of the Gods and Olympus perfectly and contrasts wonderfully to the seedy downtown neons of the Underworld. Peepshows and stripper poles add a feminist dimension to the horrors of hell that functions particularly well in parallel to the treatment of Eurydice by the male characters of the play.
Speaking of Eurydice's treatment, there is a morbid sense of pure comedy running through the entire play that satirizes not only Offenbach's original lyrics and story, but the wider problem of female treatment in myths and legends. The use of the can-can, popping up thematically as Eurydice slowly loses both her mind and independence as both a mortal and a woman, is both haunting and hilarious. Balloons are used throughout the play to represent everything from birth to death to clouds to clothes in a showcase of Lizzie Clachan's extreme comedic excellence and technical creativity. The lyrics have been updated to poke fun at everything from golden showers to veganism, while still retaining Offenbach's genuinely catchy and memorable tunes, performed under the charmingly energetic conductorship of the Royal Academy's Sian Edwards.
Rice's ability to address and represent not only the source material but the masterwork that it is based on is truly an impressive feat. Her retention of the original divine mysteries and godly mischief of the myth is only enhanced by an appropriate and compelling choice of setting, which can make or break a musicalised classic. However, the glitz and glam do not overshadow the deeper messages of the performance, and there is still weight and meaning to the characters and their choices. The audience is led to both love and hate Alex Otterburn as a delightfully camp and precocious Pluto, but we are reminded in the final act that all the Gods are all ultimately on the same side: there is much to be said about a modernized myth that does not skirt around concepts of authority and unfairness without idolizing mortals or demonizing Gods. The glamourous setting only serves to enhance this ironic message of fate and power. By combining the grandeur of the myth, the musicality of Offenbach, and the witty nuances of modern directorship, Rice has produced a genuinely outstanding and enjoyable show.
Orpheus in the Underworld plays until the 27th of November 2019. Tickets available here.
Image credit Clive Barda