Unselfconsciously pretentious: Persephone review

Image Description: The name ‘Persephone’ on a pink background with illustrations of roses, a pomegranate and a skeletal hand.

CW – Rape

When I was asked if I wanted to review a play that retold a classic Greek myth ‘through a fusion of folk music and contemporary dance’ I thought no, not really. But having sacked off my role at OxStu for a bit, I decided to appease Maddy and Poppy and go. Strangely, no one I asked to come with me to see a student play (that they didn’t know anyone in) wanted to. So I went to watch Persephone solo. Please don’t tell anyone – I actually really enjoyed it.

The set and costumes were beautifully designed- although apart from e-boy esque Hades and Hera’s shoulder pads, I’m not sure how the retelling was particularly ‘modern’. The live music tied the scenes together, Benedict Bradley’s amazing performance on violin acting almost as another vocal line. The soundtrack was a good range of genres while still in keeping with generally being folk-rock. At times, the drums were a bit heavy-handed, but quieter scenes meshed with the storyline seamlessly.

Persephone is loosely based around the Greek myth. However, this framework is used to explore female agency and the balance between being free and being safe. Wide-eyed (slightly nauseating) Persephone was a perfect vehicle for this. Bethan Draycott performed the naive character convincingly alongside Peter Todd as Hades. She got to really show off her vocal ability in a solo towards the end and did not disappoint. Given the personality of the character, I did think it was a bit strange when Perspheone is kind of okay with hearing that thousands of humans are dying as a result of her actions, but it was easy enough to forget.

The dialogue fit the show and the plot- in that it was pretentious. But the show seems to kind of know it is, and own it. One line that got a few laughs from Demeter; ‘Are you a dryad (Wood nymphs-tree spirit)  my dear? Because I’ve had better conversations with a tree’ encapsulates this spirit. The way the cast was confident and really believed in their characters meant that the audience was sucked into the story nonetheless and created a feeling of escapism that good shows can give you.

If there’s one thing that this show did particularly well, it’s casting and the chemistry between characters. Apart from the star-crossed lover dynamic between Hades and Persephone, Hera and Zeus (Maggie Moriarty and Lorcan Cook) also complemented each other really well. The dynamic between them meant their backstory didn’t need to be spelt out, the long and tiring relationship shone through the witty back and forth. In both couples, the voices also complemented each other, the more mature tone of Hera and Zeus contrasting the earnestness of the younger couple. The relationship between Demeter and Persephone was especially touching. Maddie Hall did a great job playing a hippie helicopter parent and even in scenes of tension between them, the mother-daughter affection between her and Persephone was touching.

If there’s one thing that this show did particularly well, it’s casting and the chemistry between characters.

In general, the vocals could have been considered a bit more carefully, the songs were lovely but often just a bit out of the range of the cast. I’m sure that when they’re standing still and have just warmed up they can hit every note perfectly- but trying to do the same while performing and dancing is a different game. Hermes performed well in his role as a narrator but bits of information were lost as the pitch of his voice was level with the music. The music needed to be a lower volume or vary in pitch to allow his voice to carry a bit more.

The choreography of the contemporary dance was genius. One scene in particular, when Hades almost looked like he was being controlled by the dryad (wood nymph) narrators at a pivotal moment, threw into question the character’s agency and made his wrongdoing more ambiguous. The duets between the characters were beautiful and only added to their chemistry while not being too difficult to bring us out of the story.

The first act was significantly better than the second, as the story came to a close, the dialogue became more forced as it seemed that the plot lines were trying to be tied up, but not quite making sense. In this context, ‘Leave them wanting more’ performed by Abi Watkinson as Aphrodite was both a breath of fresh air and one of the stand-out performances of the show. Jazz choreography and beautiful pink lighting made a perfect stage for Watkinson to twirl and be generally absolutely fabulous.

There were some heavy themes during this show, the scene where Zeus rapes Persephone was dealt with sensitively, her recovery becoming a major thread in the plot from then on. It also had a profound effect on her character, the audience got the sense that some of her innocence had been lost, and replaced with distrust and sadness. The female characters, Aphrodite and later Demeter, become her place of solace, nursing her to recovery and trying to build back her confidence. Draycott pulled this performance off subtly, allowing the scene to expand of themes of female agency without being sensationalist.

The audience got the sense that some of her innocence had been lost, and replaced with distrust and sadness.

The three hours (yes, three hours) passed quickly and I left the Oxford Playhouse feeling a little bit lighter than I had before. While you’re a student, take the chance on performances that you would have otherwise passed over, you might find out that you enjoy something a lot more than you expect. Somehow, there are plenty more student plays coming up this year, probably due to the forced covid hiaitus – it’s worth taking the time to go see one.

Image Credit: Jazz Hands Productions