In conversation with Hole and Hadestown

This is a continuation of a conversation between me (Maddy) and Rosemary Waugh on feminist theatre we’re seeing in London. It started in October 2018 with An Encounter with Dance Nation, and continued in November 2018 with In Conversation with I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, if you want to catch up with the story so far.

We heart Persephone (pic by Helen Maybanks)

Dear Rosemary

I’ve just read Victoria Sadler’s review of Hole — have you read it? — and now I’m a little mournful. She had one of those blissful nights at the theatre where sitting in the auditorium feels like being plugged in to the power grid; reading her describe “an emotion so powerful, so menacing, that it flowed out in gushes from the creatives to confront each person watching”, I had this picture in my head of characters from the Harry Potter books zapping spells across the room, electric currents darting from their wands to meet in a blaze of light. I’m sad because I wanted to have felt that watching Hole and didn’t. And I’m anxious that these letters are becoming an Ongoing Chronicle of Feminists Who Don’t Make Theatre Nit-Picking At Feminist Theatre. Maybe both of these things are OK.

It was your suggestion we see Hole (but I would have seen it anyway, because RashDash directed), and mine that we see Hadestown: we thought they’d fit well together because both are responses to the misogyny of Greek myths. Instead it turns out how they fit together in my head is by both being in what was — for me — the wrong venue. Hand on heart: I know I’m a snob. Or maybe reverse snob: I like small rooms, scruffiness, imperfection, disjointedness. Lyn Gardner says that Hole “might, to the unobservant eye, look like a bit of a mess”: far from it. To me it felt self-conscious in its exactitude: it is in this room to Have An Effect. Maybe what I’m saying is that this is theatre made for me, but that I feel is directing all its energy at the generic Chelsea denizen who buys tickets to everything at the Royal Court and will be insulted not to see a well-made play.

I suspect I’m being violently unfair.

And maybe I’m chucking at Hole my resentment at one of my favourite works of art — Anais Mitchell’s original Hadestown album — being transformed into a machine for making money, entirely contrary to the sentiment at the heart of the narrative. It’s the second time I’ve seen this show: the first was by luck, in 2016 in New York, when I could still describe it as “rough-hewn”, designed as “a homestead amphitheatre of mismatched wooden chairs (a smart nod to the pioneers and Puritans of America’s past, and its constitutional commitment to rugged individualism)”. Two years later, everything feels polished, from the furniture to the dance routines. I hate that.

Now I’m being rude.

And also misleading: there’s still a lot I love about Hadestown, and a lot I could admire in Hole too. But I feel like I’m a) ranting and b) could go on for several pages without pausing for breath, so I’m going to stop here and say: what are your immediate thoughts?

Dear Maddy

My immediate thoughts — at least, the ones that struck me when I first saw Hole and read your email in December [it’s now January: did I mention that I’m sorry for my lateness in replying??] — include two things. Firstly: I didn’t like Hole. I mean, I didn’t viscerally dislike it. I just felt somewhat underwhelmed by it and, at points, a little bored. I felt like I’d got the measure of the piece in the first ten mins, after which it didn’t especially do anything. That’s a horrible expression. I mean, it didn’t (and this is going to sound even more sanctimonious and demanding) tell me anything I didn’t already know. I know the contents of my own brain all too well. I really really don’t want to enter into spaces where people reiterate what I already know to be true or agree with. I find that very boring. And Hole was telling me things like: women eat bread. I know women eat bread. Approximately 60% of my own diet is bread. At the weekend, I hand-baked two loaves and ate half of one in the course of a single meal. I love bread.

I agree with your feeling that somehow the ‘energy’ of Hole is being directed at the archetypical Royal Court ticket-buyer. But I’d also go further because, unlike you, I didn’t really think it was ‘theatre made for me’, for precisely that reason. It felt like a piece of ‘feminist’ artwork made to answer misogyny, as loosely represented by the Old White Male, this semi-mythical beast who would walk into the Royal Court auditorium in need of converting to the feminist cause. I’d like to make really clear that this is a ‘problem’ I have with far more works of art than just Hole. And my feeling is that artworks like this are constructed entirely within the traditional ‘male gaze’ (if that’s how you want to describe it) framework… as in, they’re kicking against the system but also accepting entirely that the system exists and, crucially, not creating anything different. I think the ‘feminist’ art that excites me the most — in fact the art/theatre that excites and interests me the most — are the pieces made from an entirely different perspective, ones, for example, that not only aren’t made to answer the male gaze, they don’t give a fuck whether he’s looking or not.

I’m aware I sound like a bitch here. That’s kind-of deliberate. One of the things I noticed in your email is that, more than once, you essentially apologise for potentially being ‘unfair’. When I was reflecting recently on our emails from last year (and my feelings towards criticism in general) I was thinking about how I have days when I just want to scream: BECAUSE I JUST DIDN’T LIKE IT!!!! at the world in general when asked to justify my thoughts on a piece of theatre. Sometimes I just didn’t like it and I’m always the first to go to great lengths to apologise for whatever my gut reaction was to a work on stage. And, in general, I’m really glad I do make myself justify it, because I genuinely don’t want to be one of those critics who unthinkingly passes down judgments, especially because mine truly do change on reflection afterwards… and because interrogating your own responses, intellectual and sensory, to art (and everything else) is perhaps the most important thing of all to do. BUT. I also sort-of hate myself for it. Because I wish I had more courage to believe in my own opinion. By which I mean, I think there is a fine line between self-interrogation (which actually relies on a lot of confidence) and self-apology. One of the most valuable things a new friend of mine has said to me on several occasions is something along the lines of: ‘Well, you’re allowed to think that.’

So, as a new year’s resolution, I don’t want to use an extended space to think about theatre and criticism as room to just apologise for my opinions (even if those opinions later change). I do, however, want to make the most of it as a different space with its own specific virtues regarding writing criticism. Let me explain that better, with an example. I loved Hadestown. Mainly because: I loved Persephone. After you’d mentioned writing about it, I bought a ticket and went with my husband one day after work. It was a couple of weeks after the reviews came out and, having read a few and seen some responses on Twitter, I knew in advance what other people’s criticisms of it were. And watching it, I could completely appreciate ‘objectively’ (meaning: according to the model we use when evaluating a piece of theatre using traditional theatre criticism) the criticisms that had been made (although I didn’t agree with all of them). I could see its ‘flaws’ and I didn’t really give a fuck because it was the first evening in ages I’d spent with my husband and I got to talk him through my 1000-point verbal essay titled ‘Why I Love the Olivier’ [once again, in case I haven’t said this before: I am the biggest fan of the Olivier Theatre as a space and truly believe it is one of the best theatres in London. The ‘problem’ lies in people not knowing what to do with it — perhaps because we’re not used to theatres of that kind any more — not with the space itself etc etc]. I also remember saying to him that I would have liked it less if I had been reviewing it that night because then I would have had to be aware of its ‘problems’, whereas I was basically at liberty to just enjoy it. Or, more than that, I was at liberty to know that we could write about it in whatever way we saw fit. For example, talking about it in terms of mythology or in relation to another play without having to attend to all of it through a particular lens.

I think there’s something really important there about how theatre is experienced when sitting with a notepad already part-thinking about how to squeeze it through the reviewing spaghetti machine. But before we go down that route — and I have plenty more to say on that — I want to know what you did love about Hadestown originally. As an album and, perhaps, as a show in America. Tell me what made you love it, because — you’re right — we do spend too much time bitching. [<<< Is that an apology??]

We love eating bread (pic by The Other Richard)

Dear Rosemary

You’re right about the apologising. Good spot. I think it comes less from anxiety about what I’m feeling and more from what I’m recognising in the mode of expression: a leaning on to cliche or assumption, hearing myself speak of the Royal Court archetype when I know a) arguably I am now that archetype, and b) I expect more consideration of complexity from myself. It also comes from the fact that I know people involved in making Hole: the idea that, for instance, lighting designer Katharine Williams is thinking about the generic Chelsea denizen is ludicrous and insulting. So I suppose part of that impulse to apologise is down to a recognition of a gap between the makers’ intention and my reception, or perhaps a recognition of the gap between what the makers (might have) intended me to feel and how I actually felt, which was distanced, which I then articulated in a language that also feels distant from the one I’m usually trying to use. (Obviously I am now aching to apologise for how convoluted this paragraph is.)

I’m noticing that initially we connected these plays in terms of mythology but really we’re thinking about them in terms of lived experienced. (Which is, of course, part of Hole’s point: that these seemingly ancient stories have shaped the lived experience of women for centuries…) I have a lot of lived experience when it comes to Hadestown. In January 2011 the Guardian published an interview with Anais Mitchell, written by me, in which I describe it as “one of the best albums of 2010”. At this end of the decade I can confidently describe it as one of the defining albums of my life. I play it so much at home my kids ought to hate it (on principle, but especially given their militantly narrow music tastes), but they too have been caught in the spell of this big, sweeping, strange, allusive, Mississippi river of an album, that runs, steady and volatile, across time and geography and the American Dream, carrying past and present musical traditions, folk and gospel, pop and jazz, confidently in its flow.

I love Hadestown for Michael Chorney’s arrangements, but more for Anais Mitchell’s mind. Hadestown started when she was driving in her car with a refrain — “wait for me, I’m coming” — that built into a song and then into a song-cycle about the thwarted lovers, Orpheus and Eurydice, but in telling their story she’s less concerned with love as a romantic or sentimental quality but a lived experience in a social context. And so Hades isn’t a ghost town but a thriving industrial complex ruled over by an implacable magnate who knows just how to manipulate people living in poverty so that he can take best advantage of them. Mitchell’s telling of the story is fiercely anti-capitalist but never straightforward in its politics: the characters, especially Orpheus and Eurydice, are complicated and pragmatic and make difficult decisions, and the mind prodding them along their journey refuses to condemn them for that.

All of that is perfectly clear in the album; as are Persephone’s exhilarating subversive streak, running a black market in drink, drugs and sex and counting the days until she gets to roam free; the Fates’ bleak but insouciant quasi-neoliberal attitude; the fear and vulnerability masked by Hades’ power; the cruelty and danger masked by his charisma. And there are ways in which putting these characters on stage is a positive transformation: Ani DiFranco is a glorious, raucous Persephone on record, but Amber Gray on stage is transcendental; the decision in London to make Patrick Page, the actor playing Hades, look like Donald Trump was inspired (I find it endlessly unsettling how prescient Mitchell was with the Why We Build The Wall song — but then of course it’s not prescience, it’s political acuity, an understanding that one individual’s experience of power and freedom requires the subservience and incarceration of others).

But there are other ways in which the Hadestown the album has been negatively transformed — undermined even — by its growing relationship with commercialism. I love the Olivier too, and feel thankful for the public subsidy that enabled it to bring Hadestown to London where other, smaller venues were unable to afford it. But Hadestown has had to change and compromise to inhabit that space, to pay back the investment, and to encourage the further investment that might result in a transfer to Broadway. Where I see that change/compromise most acutely is in the figure of Orpheus. Now I’m going to confess: I have a massive crush on Orpheus-on-record. Of course I do: he’s sung by Bon Iver for fuck’s sake. His voice is a harp tuned to tender heartstrings and I still turn to For Emma, Forever Ago whenever I feel the pang of an unrequited crush. But it’s also a crush on a character who, in his very first duet with Eurydice, lays out a vision of life that rejects money, rejects the capitalist hegemony, proposes instead a more holistic economy, one built on exchange and respect for ecology and environment. Importantly, on record the implication is that this duet is coming late in an established relationship: it has the bantering quality of lovers whose arguments are hued with respect and affection. On stage that’s shattered, the narrator instead making clear that the story begins with Orpheus and Eurydice first meeting.

An interesting quirk of the staging is that, while other characters are performed by people of a different ethnicity to the singer on the album, Orpheus on both record and stage is a white man. And already in New York it was noticeable what an ineffectual white man he is: self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-enamoured. In London that was accentuated further by the way Orpheus sits writing his bloody masterpiece while Eurydice sets out alone to try and solve the problem of their poverty. This is what happens when you have stage time to fill: Mitchell and her director, Rachel Chavkin, have needed to make a set of decisions about what this story is, who these characters are, that moves both quite far from Mitchell’s original (and, to my mind, already perfect) vision. And I really feel it when Orpheus sings If It’s True:

The ones who tell the lies

Are the solemnest to swear

And the ones who load the dice

Always say the toss is fair

And the ones who deal the cards

Are the ones who take the tricks

With their hands over their hearts

While we play the game they fix

There’s a galvanic quality to the way Bon Iver sings this: he pulls himself out of a slump of despair, recognises that he’s being sold a lie by the Fates, a lie designed to make him wallow in apathy, to not bother trying to create change; and so the lyric is a reminder to himself of what he’s in the world to fight, what he’s in the world to change. In that lyric, Orpheus’ journey to Hades exceeds the myth that houses it. But on stage, that stops being true, because here Orpheus, to quote Tim Bano in the Stage, is nothing more than “a bit of a drip”.

This might sound like an apology — apologies (ha!) if so — but I’m aware that as a critique this is along the lines of “you took my toy and broke it”. As my husband asked me after we saw it: wouldn’t you rather have a musical in the Olivier that at least contains some critique of capitalism, that confronts the wealthy people in the £65 seats with the problem of neoliberalism, even if it doesn’t let the sappy white guy solve it? And yes, he’s right, I would. But I think I would also rather that Hadestown didn’t have to become a capitalist commodity — a cog in the machine — in the process. The big change from New York to London is the addition of the ensemble dancers: in New York there was still a sense that everyone on stage was making the story together, filling the roles of characters and ensemble together, just as happens on the album. That wasn’t the case any more in London. And so Hadestown has shifted, in that two years on stage, from a vision of collectivism to a vision of individualism: and if that isn’t neoliberalism in a nutshell, please tell me what is.

It’s taken a long time for me to wrench these words out of myself, and I send this to you at the start of February. So now my question is: six weeks after seeing Hadestown and Hole, what are your lingering thoughts? What remains?

Dear Maddy,

I’m going to start with the thing I completely forgot to mention in my original email, which was to say that the whole ‘saying sorry’ thing was intended to be a reference to the start of Hole!!! Like, that was a part of it I did really like and stupidly left out that sentence when I was writing it to you. I loved, hugely, the successive apologies at the start of the piece, and the game show buzzer that kept cutting the women off before they had even begun. This is how I often feel writing about theatre (and just existing??), that I have this tiny available window of time and space to do so and then just as I open my mouth to say something the fucking buzzer sounds and I’m left like a goldfish blowing air bubbles and confused as to why I wasted the tiny slot I did have by filling it with a circuitous apology or rambling bullshit without getting to the point. And, like you say about our responses to Hole/Hadestown, that’s not really about ancient myths, it’s about the lived reality of NOW. Of being here now, opening mouths, telling stories.

Picking up on your mention of Orpheus: before I went to see it, I had heard/read several of my friends complaining about the weediness of Orpheus. It totally worked for me that he was this slightly pathetic skinny white boy, because that’s actually how I imagine the classical character. A little while ago, Hailey Bachrach referred to him as ‘you-had-one-job-Orpheus’ in a review for Exeunt and I wept with laughter, because that is exactly how I think of him. I mean, I just fundamentally lack respect for the man when all.he.had.to.do.is.not.look.behind.him. DON’T LOOK BACK, ORPHEUS!! How hard can it be? I find it fucking infuriating. Y-H-O-J-Orpheus is not the man I would want to marry. Or even, date. Less still, employ.

I digress. My main go-to reference point for Orpheus is (like most things in life) Nick Cave. The Lyre of Orpheus [please let’s pause here and listen to this magnificent song] starts off with Orpheus as a bit of a loser: ‘Orpheus sat gloomy in his garden shed/ Wondering what to do…’. He then bashes together a lyre, dives inside to tell Eurydice (who, in one of my all-time favourite lines, is ‘asleep in bed/like a sack of cannonballs’) and watches her literally explode at the sound of it. Following a short spell of massacring bunny wabbits and other cutesy animals, God hits the stupid man over the head with a hammer and sends him down to Hell, where Eurydice is waiting for him, ready to reiterate the message that he needs to stop playing that fucking lyre. Orpheus, in this song, reminds me of one of my personal least favourite male archetypes: the twat with the acoustic guitar. You know, the one who springs up out of nowhere at every shite student party you ever had to attend and starts strumming his fucking guitar, despite being a) crap at playing guitar, b) severely lacking in material, c) no one asking him to play on his stupid acoustic guita, d) the fact some girl in the corner drinking whiskey named Rosemary is giving him death stares and hoping the hand of God will smash him down a well. If I were to write my own book of modern myths, the man-with-the-acoustic guitar (i.e. the man with the misplaced belief that the floor is always his to occupy and the sounds he makes are more interesting than the ones made by anyone else) would have its own chapter.

Perhaps this is why Eurydice and, most of all, Persephone are particularly attractive characters in Hadestown. Their partners, Orpheus and Hades are, respectively, needy and creepy. I also have a long-running obsession with Persephone as one of my favourite classical characters and Amber Gray is, as you say, JUST SO GOOD I could watch her all day. Crucially, the characterisation changes the focus of the myth. Simplified, the story of Persephone is about abduction and rape. It’s also about interminable grief, on the part of Demeter/Ceres, her mother. But the Persephone of Hadestown isn’t just defiant within the confines of the original story (funnily enough, in complete contradiction to Orpheus being unable to follow one order, I think of Persephone’s eating of the pomegranate seeds as rebellious, or deliberately destructive), she has an entirely new, additional, different story.

I’ve realised that this is basically just a very long piece of fan-girling rather than, you know, some kind of SERIOUS THEATRE ANALYSIS. But, this morning, that feels good. You wrote to me at the start of Feb and I’m replying at the start of March (fittingly, the start of spring — time for Persephone to come upstairs again), mainly because I’ve been kind of like gloomy Orpheus moping in his garden shed (the sad part being: I don’t even have a shed). But I was writing to a friend this morning that despite the overwhelming cloud of doom and negativity encasing the UK at the moment, I’ve been feeling recently that the theatre world (for all its flaws, for all that this is too long coming) is peppered with little lights of positivity. Productions and people (including new critics) that I’m really excited by. I’m writing this the morning before going to Richard II (dir. Adjoa Andoh and Lynette Linton) which I’m really looking forward to (not just because I’m a really big History Plays geek).

And to carry on trying to counteract the negativity that’s been sweeping my brain recently, I wanted to end by mentioning another play I saw recently and loved (and is, sort-of, relevant because it was performed in the same space as Hole). Superhoe by Nicole Lecky opened up a great big space in my chest (in a good way). It feels both real (and very specifically modern in its details) and ancient — in that, it’s another chapter of The Story of Women… I actually kept thinking about courtesans and other times when rich men have essentially enslaved women in sex work. When I thought about the Instagram images in Superhoe, I also thought of those paintings by Alma-Tadema or Ingres where all the naked women in the harem recline by a pool or on a bed, like this is a wonderful life for them. There’s also a moment that feels almost mythical, where she sets fire to the front lawn of the house that the man who sexual abused her has just moved back into. There’s something amazing about that image of the burnt front lawn, of scorching the land, scarring it with rage.

I don’t know where I’m going with this really, only to say that I loved it and that it felt like one of many tiny lighthouses illuminating the industry at the moment. Tell me about something you’ve loved recently…

But if you’d just let me tell you about the football…

Dear Rosemary

Oh oh oh I know exactly how you feel: last Friday I saw the drag-king group Pecs and the Tuesday before that an extraordinary dance/participatory piece called Smack That by Rhiannon Faith and a group of women who have experienced domestic violence, and this week I’m seeing Inside Bitch (also in the Hole room), and pretty soon I’m seeing The Ridiculous Darkness, and I’m GUTTED I missed Superhoe but my god there’s that much on at the moment, and so much of it involves women (in the most expansive sense) telling stories, claiming space, shifting perceptions, asking questions, making change. But the thing I want to tell you about is The Paper Man, which I saw at Soho after an impatient nine months waiting for it to open in London (it was at the Norwich and Norfolk festival in 2018) and loved loved loved. To be honest I expected to love it because it has excellent people in it like Vera Chok and Jess Mabel Jones, and because my brilliant friend Tanuja Amarasuriya came in as director for the London run. I expected so much from it that when the Almeida Young Critics group asked me to lead a workshop with them and invited me to choose a show for them to see, I sent them to The Paper Man, and when I was setting up this season of Theatre Club discussions, this is the show we kicked off with.

I won’t actually write too much about it here, partly because I have this niggly idea for a different piece of writing that begins with the childish but absurdly pleasing lines: “Lee wants to tell a story about a footballer. Lee can fuck off.” To explain: Lee Simpson of Improbable wanted to make a show about an Austrian footballer, Matthias Sindelar, who defied the Nazis, but found that his cast — Jess, Vera, and, in the original production, Anna-Maria Nabirye — were no less defiant themselves. What The Paper Man stages instead is the process of discussing why they might tell this story now, but also the processes by which women’s stories are unheard because of the prevalence of stories by and about white men. Within that, however, is another discussion: about the processes by which some women’s stories are unheard — stories of black women, Asian women, women of colour — because of the prevalence of stories by and about white women.

There’s a huge, hair-shirt-scratchy question cramped inside of The Paper Man: why did Lee cast three women — and specifically three women of different ethnic backgrounds — for a show about a dead white man he finds heroic? It made me think a little about the ways in which theatre pretends to be diverse versus the ways it actually creates space for multiple voices and viewpoints. In a sense, it doesn’t matter why: he did, and the show fractures and kaleidoscopes because of that decision. Something interesting came up at the Theatre Club discussion: some of the audience were actually frustrated because the show didn’t tell enough of the story of Sindelar himself; they wanted something more linear, more straightforward: the qualities often characterised as masculine in storytelling. But I loved — LOVED I TELL YOU — the ways in which Jess, Vera, sound designer/musician Adrienne Quartly and, in this run, Keziah Joseph, each pushed and pulled the work in their own direction.

And this is why I wanted to talk about The Paper Man briefly in relation to Hole and Hadestown. A really important thought within The Paper Man is that there is no single all-encompassing Woman: there are four women on stage and each of them communicates in a slightly different way, each of them has a different set of priorities and desires in their storytelling. Whereas Hole, for all that it presented Difference and Diversity on stage, never really seemed to be opening space for either: it was dealing with Woman and Myth, sure, but my memory is of it telling a single story, not plural stories. Hadestown — like I said before — is transformed by Anais Mitchell from a myth narrow-focused on two lovers to a story of multiple characters, each with their own complexity. And here we are, ourselves, beginning with those two shows but opening up to others, a constant unfolding of thought and observation, our irritation with Feminist Theatre somehow never waning, but nor with it our passion. And so, until next time…

The Department of Feminist Conversations

The Department of Feminist Conversations is an intervention into contemporary criticality that seeks to broaden conversations about life and art through the perspective of contemporary feminisms. You can read our Letters to the Future at http://tinyletter.com/Feminist/archive.

    maddy costa

    Written by

    trying to change the world through writing about theatre. ridiculous I know. two kids one puppy four websites and a head full of dreams

    The Department of Feminist Conversations

    The Department of Feminist Conversations is an intervention into contemporary criticality that seeks to broaden conversations about life and art through the perspective of contemporary feminisms. You can read our Letters to the Future at http://tinyletter.com/Feminist/archive.