The story of Orpheus and Eurydice from Greek mythology is one that has been translated across many art forms over the centuries, from opera and ballet to songs and poetry, this great tragedy is a tale that easily withstands retelling. Sarah Ruhl’s 2003 interpretation was written as a sort of catharsis shortly after the death of her father, leading to the emotionally heightened addition of Eurydice’s father to the legend.
The basis of Ruhl’s version is largely the same as the myth though. Orpheus and Eurydice are madly in love, he with music, she with literature, but both are besotted by one another more than anything else, leading them naturally to marriage. On their wedding day, Eurydice is enticed away from the party by a ‘nasty, interesting man’ who takes her to his penthouse apartment to retrieve a letter from her father, but as she leaves she tragically finds herself falling to her death. Upon arriving in the underworld she meets her father, but as per the rules of this place, she cannot remember her life, nor how things work in the living realm. Her father is “subversive” however and not only remembers his daughter, but is determined to remind her of the joys of life. Meanwhile, Orpheus pines inconsolably for Eurydice and uses his supreme musical powers to charm his way into the netherworld to secure her return to the world of the living.
The first thing that strikes you about Luke Kerridge’s immaculate production for Red Stitch is the remarkable technical achievement of the staging. Ruhl apparently devised her script specifically so that set designers may have a field day in conceiving the playing space for this story, and certainly Emily Collet has done just that. Surely this is the pinnacle of what the Red Stitch ensemble have been able to achieve in their charming, but limited confines.
To create this mythological world, Collet has provided multiple platforms set over a pool of water, like little jetties, all at different elevations to create manifold locations and provide a true feeling of height and depth as Orpheus passes messages from up above to the underworld. A plumbed in telephone, waterfall entrance to hades and smoke on the water are all highlights of this aquatic wonderland. (A warning for those sitting in the front row – wear your wellies!) Collet has also given the cast costumes that, while obviously made on a budget, are nevertheless beautifully designed, building immensely upon the portrayal of each character and amplifying the visual charm.
Clare Springett and Michael Robinson’s lighting design is likewise stunning. A mixture of fashionable filament light bulbs, classic theatrical stage lighting and even the bluish glow of LED lights, add modernity and style while becoming part of the overall ambience and set design itself. Furthermore, the sound design by Ian Moorhead is simply exquisite. With otherworldly hums and echoes, an ambience is created that is eerily beautiful; creating a soundscape that truly crafts a sense of the underworld. It’s worth also crediting Elizabeth Downes’ stage management for the incredibly precise soundboard timing of the plucking of strings and wordless screams to synchronise with the cast.
All this excellence means that performances are given the room to be everything that they can be. Ngaire Dawn Fair as Eurydice is as delicate and ethereal as gossamer, creating a character that is agonisingly tragic, while Jonathan Peck as Orpheus is charmingly naïve, headstrong and unwaveringly gallant.
A trio of performers play the ever-watchful ‘stones’ of the underworld, providing narrative to the story and direction to Eurydice. As the Little Stone, Alexandra Aldrich is extraordinary in her intensity. Full of haunting expressions and precisely intense physicality, she sets the benchmark for these three and will hopefully bring the Big and Loud Stones along with her as the season progresses.
As both the man who leads Eurydice to her death and the wackily childlike Lord of the Underworld, Dion Mills is full of characterisation. At times reminiscent of Dr Smith from Lost in Space, Mills is completely over the top, creating a version of Hades that isn’t quite frightening, but is definitely unpredictable.
As Eurydice’s father, Alex Menglet demonstrates the value of his unquestionable stage pedigree, bringing heartbreaking poignancy to a role that isn’t part of the myth, but is clearly the representation of Ruhl’s late father. As a further nod to her undeniable love for him, Ruhl extends the tale beyond the known ending from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to devise a finale that owes as much debt to Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-crossed lovers as it does Greek mythology and brings additional depth to the moving story.
At an efficient running time of just 75 minutes, Ruhl has made palatable what can often be seen as impenetrable and dusty storytelling. With that said, it’s still worth knowing that if the classics aren’t your thing, the ‘magical’ stylings of this variation aren’t likely to have you picking up Homer or Virgil any time soon. However if the great themes of those stories do float your boat, you’ll find the technical brilliance of this production and dreamlike quality of Ruhl’s variation truly enchanting.