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Theatre Review: Persephone at The Courtyard

Theatre Review: Persephone at The Courtyard

Of all the Greek myths, the story of Persephone and Hades is one of the most popular – and one of the hardest to swallow.

After all, many of these stories feature relationships that are creepy at the best of times, and none of them include a marriage where the groom literally kidnaps the bride.

Writer/director Emma Hawkins and composer/musical director Carrie Penn, however, have put their own twist on the story with Persephone. This folk-rock musical is a nuanced, complex reimagining that puts the title character’s experiences at its centre, and saw commercial and critical success after its premiere at the Oxford Playhouse.

A shame, then, that last night’s performance at London’s Courtyard Theatre never quite lived up to its potential.

This is through no fault of the actors, who all give strong performances with the material available – most notably, Bethan Draycott as Persephone. Making the most of a sweet yet strong singing voice, Draycott takes her character from a naïve, trusting ingénue to a woman whose maturity has come at a terrible price, before the audience even knows what’s hit them. Peter Todd also gives a good performance as a more sympathetic (but still morally questionable) incarnation of Hades.

Still, the pair have the most chemistry not in sung duets, but through dance. Their heartfelt body language blends perfectly with the work of choreographer Max Penrose, whose beautiful routines are true highlights of the show. The Greek Chorus-style Narrators, meanwhile, are at their best when they narrate through skilful, fluid movement plus creative use of Alice Penrose’s pleasing yet minimalist set.

The problems, however, mostly lie in the words. While Penn’s music itself is a decent blend of its folk-rock influences, her and Hawkins’ touch with lyrics and dialogue is less certain. There are some good moments, such as when Persephone mourns “the last years of Spring”, but more often than not the language is clichéd and the emotional beats fall flat. And don’t get me started on the part where a character is blackmailed into a terrible decision before confessing in the most incomplete and incriminating way possible, apparently for no other reason than to add some extra conflict.

One notable exception was the fabulously named Lorcan Cudlip-Cook as Zeus. Despite plenty of lines that could have sounded wooden and cheesy, he’s equal parts entertaining and detestable as he flips between comedy and villainy to create a narcissistic, callous and skin-crawling antagonist. And naturally, it’s his character’s manipulations that shove the play without warning into its darkest, most chilling moment – although he’s helped along by Draycott’s acting and some simple but painfully effective tricks from lighting designer David Street and sound designer Aron West. Still, most of the production just isn’t that emotionally transporting.

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It doesn’t help that the myth isn’t ‘reimagined’ as much as it perhaps should have been. Sure, the constant repeated references to “the little old town” did get quite annoying after a while. But maybe that’s because we all know that the “town” is just code for the actual Olympus, home of the actual gods. The programme claims that Persephone is aiming for “timelessness,” and that “the fantastical parts of the original” have been removed from the narrative. But then, why is the perfectly normal-looking Demeter able to cause a mass extinction event just by walking out of her house? Was Persephone ignorant of said extinction the whole time, or was she just too disconnected from humanity to care? And why, god(s), why doesn’t she simply call her mum from the underworld to confirm that she’s safe and happy when it has been repeatedly established that this is a universe in which telephones exist?

Either way, it’s hard to truly lose yourself in a story where, it seems, this whole mess could have been avoided if Demeter had just switched to a better mobile data plan.


Persephone is on at The Courtyard Theatre from 17 – 21 August 2022

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