As a Classics student, it’s always an interesting experience watching adaptations of Greek myths. It’s hard to distance myself from my knowledge of the tales and to stop myself from asking the questions we’re conditioned to ask; namely, how has the ancient myth been translated for a modern audience that perhaps has no knowledge of the tale? The Little Bulb Theatre’s Orpheus offered an interesting and unique answer. Set in a 1930s Parisian cabaret club, the myth is presented as a play-within-a-play, and is part of a musical night hosted by the Edith Piaf-like figure of Yvette Pépin (Eugenie Pastor). Complete with a comically exaggerated French accent, rolling Rs and dramatic stage makeup, she addresses the audience with a warmth and familiarity, as though we too are part of this elaborate set up – her regular customers perhaps?
Before the play gets underway, Yvette briefly introduces the narrative of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Yes, this tells us, the audience will need an introduction to the myth; but no, there will be no need of detailed knowledge. Instead, the myth acts as a spring board for the adaptation. Parallels are drawn between ancient Greece and 1930s Paris: Yvette announces that she will play the doomed Eurydice, her Orpheus will be Django Reinhardt (Dominic Conway), a famed jazz guitarist, who swaps his guitar for a lyre; the three chorus girls and musicians interchange with the tale’s other characters. Orpheus’ gift – his song has the power to charm wild beasts and even coerce trees and stones into dance – is translated into the star quality and sex symbol-status of Reinhardt. Despite the ongoing flirtation between the guitarist and Yvette, the chorus girls constantly batter their eyelashes at him. Also, it is his skill as a musician that seems to bring the band together. There is a lovely moment when Reinhardt struts around the stage with his guitar and each of the musicians trip over themselves in their attempt to impress him with their skill, echoing the woodland scene where the musicians – dressed as the wild beasts that Orpheus charms – dance around the bard. In both cases, it is Eurydice/Yvette that transfixes him, much to the distaste of the besotted chorus girls.
The fluidity of Orpheus’ metatheatricality is one of the adaptation’s highlights. Transition between the Greek world of myth and the Parisian world of hot club jazz and Chanson is made clear for the audience. The velvet curtain is a literal divide between the two, and projections naming the acts or events taking place are emblazoned on the curtain or screen behind, acting as a second narrative explanation for the audience. Tying the two worlds together is the flamboyance of acting style. It is often hard for modern adaptors to realise and reconfigure the mystical surrealism of Greek myth – where else do you find nymphs transforming into trees to escape lusty gods, a goddess born from sea foam, and a father that eats his children because he is scared of them? Instead of shying away from this aspect of the myths, as many others have, director Alexander Scott adopts it. In his Orpheus the surrealism is not only recognised but played upon. The performance of the myth we are presented with is mime-like and exaggerated, almost like a silent movie. This only adds to the comedy of the piece, another highlight of Orpheus. There were a number of times where laughter erupted from the audience, helped by the off-kilter, DIY style of the production – never have I seen a woodland creature played with such solemnity and, as such, never have I laughed harder.
The only downside I could find with this adaptation is equally its high point: its music. The skill and cohesion of the players is undoubted. However, as the second half got underway, the extended musical interlude after the interval did start to drag. Maybe this is only because the narrative of the drama was very short and focussed in the first half, but it is a sign of a good production – more, not less, would make this drama better and more balanced. I would have loved to see the fate of the bard following Eurydice’s second death. I’m sure that a lot of laughs could be found in Orpheus’ self-inflicted exile (he swears off women and lives in the mountains for three years), and his surreal, yet tragic death (he is torn apart by a group of women in a Bacchic frenzy). Perhaps this calls for a sequel?
Overall, the Little Bulb Theatre’s Orpheus proved an exciting and fresh adaptation of a myth that has, seemingly, been adapted in any and every way. It was interesting to see a tale often sold as a tragedy remixed as a comedy. It’s also refreshing to see an adaptation of an ancient myth so comfortable, and proud, of its surreal flamboyancy. Pastiche, vibrant and over all too soon, Scott’s Orpheus delighted all; from eight to eighty year olds, Classics students to mythological novices.