St John the Evangelist’s feels like a strangely appropriate setting to host a piece of musical theatre in which the son of a god dies in agony, betrayed by one that he thought loved him. It is difficult not to be unsettled by the figure of Christ gazing down upon both the audience and the performance from above. Two more different sons of God, however, would be hard to imagine.
This musical performance, as distinct from an opera, details the downfall and death of that most famous of Greek heroes. But in spite of the title it is the story of his wife, Dejanira, which dominates this production. Johanna Harrison portrays her descent into madness beautifully; from the first moment, as a soldier’s wife dejected by her husband’s absence, we see her verge from listlessness to mania. Upon Hercules’ return, her love turns to jealous conviction of infidelity almost as swiftly as Othello’s, the beauty of captured princess Iole being proof enough for her. David Le Provost’s Hercules is magnetic from the off, dashing and arrogant, and arrests every eye in the house.
Despite these powerful stage presences, however – as well as that of Edward Edgecumbe (Lichas) – the production is let down by the insistence of the director to translate this tragedy into something which almost resembles a happy ending. The incongruity is clear. Despite Dejanira’s constant displays of insanity, her story is resolved with salvation through Iole’s grace; Hercules is portrayed unconvincingly as a tyrant by the chorus’ interjection; the marriage of the subjugated princess to the conqueror’s heir is presented as a loving and consensual bond, instead of the imperative of Jupiter. The third act is something of a cop-out compared to the emotional intensity of the second. It’s here that the real fault of the performance lies; for all the flawless singing of the cast, the insistence that everything will be all right falls rather flat.
Nevertheless, this interpretation does allow the performance to succeed in a manner rather lacking in the original – the plight of its women. They seem to be little other than stock character roles In Handel’s initial version: Dejanira the jealous wife, Iole the lovely (but ungrateful) damsel in distress. Here the men, even decent Lichas, are boors. Lichas and Hyllus ogle Iole even in the midst of her despair, before the latter makes a series of drunken and unwanted advances; Hercules clearly loves himself more than his wife. His posture of triumph on the marital bed, standing arms and legs outspread, presents a stark contrast to Dejanira’s collapse at the bed’s foot once he has left, in an image strikingly similar to Iole’s breakdown upon her miserable entry.
Both women are vulnerable; both feel defeated, but are seemingly ultimately redeemed. It’s the exchanges between these two, Dejanira and Iole (Tara Mansfield), wherein the performance is at its strongest, and not just for the quality of the music (‘When beauty sorrow’s liv’ry wears’, in particular). The pair’s bond, in spite of Dejanira’s hatred for her rival, is manifested through the former’s adoption of Iole’s black dress – Iole even places her own shawl around Dejanira – and through the stifling tension between the two which, at times, borders on the homoerotic, especially when Dejanira rifles manically through Iole’s underwear. Dejanira’s choice of book – ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ – while Hercules prances around the bedroom was a particularly nice touch.
For all the chopping and changing, the piece does hold together nicely, and is sustained by the near-faultless singing and convincing (if not outstanding) performances by the leads. Definitely worth a watch – just don’t expect the Disney version.
Hercules is showing at St John the Evangelist Church until Saturday 23rd November. Tickets £10/7, available here.
PHOTOS/ Oxford Opera