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Orpheus, the second play in the Talking Gods series, is a play with songs focusing not directly on Orpheus (Christopher Neels) himself but on his [initial] lover, Eurydice’s (Charlie Ryall) perspective of their relationship. Though its originality is somewhat lacking in a longevous era wherein abusive musicians and their lovers seem to be in vogue, its underlying story remains poignant and relatable, interrogating a particular inexplicable quality of love: why do we stay with people who do not treat us well?
Perhaps an obvious decision, but contemporising Orpheus as a famous musician is a fun premise, allowing for a good connection between the fandoms of the modern period and the swooners of the ancient Olympian god. However, the execution is…highly disappointing, to say the least. We are told that Orpheus is from the band Jason and the Argonauts, an amusing thought, and he spends the entire play making songs and thinking up lyrics — on theme so far, even if opening up for a rather unvarying and repetitive plot structure. But then we have the songs. I must admit that both Neels and Ryall have wonderful singing voices, and the problem does not lie here. The problem lies in the music choices. I fail to understand why the theatre company did not develop their own songs, clearly having talented singers and, from what I can tell, the facility to produce their own backing tracks. The sheer volume of covers in this play is simply disappointing, particularly given that they are so similar in time signatures and theme, being all from the same or very similar genres. There is a complete lack of variation in this way, and there is not a single musical number that could not be replaced by another; the songs have no individual relevance or poignancy.
In fact, the music video cutaways become incredibly subtractive and repetitive, if anything, predictably disturbing the momentum of the plot. I emphasise, we can get an understanding of Eurydice’s humdrum, music-filled life with Orpheus without having to experience it first-handedly ourselves. Visually –– and acoustically, given how almost all songs are slow and get blander with each instalment –– there is just not enough going on for these scenes to be so oft-repeated as they are. Almost all of them simply involve a spotlighted Neels rocking to and fro, mic in hand, and, occasionally, Eurydice joins the feeble party and moves in the same way, both of them back-to-back or aimlessly swaying independently in a spotlight. OK. We get it now. He likes music.
Furthermore, where character realism is concerned, there is a complete and utter lack of precision and attention to detail. For example, one would expect that Orpheus, someone so obsessed with music that he explains an entire tuning system, equal temperament, to Eurydice on their first night, someone who writes music and lyrics all day long, would certainly know which key on his keyboard is which… When sitting at his keyboard, Orpheus first details that the standard A key ‘fires’ [an interesting word choice] at 440 Hz. This measurement is, indeed, accurate, pedantic terminology aside; what is not so accurate is the fact that Neels hits the D key, instead of the A. He then talks about the lower A, hitting D again, and this is repeated until he hits what is written in the text as the lowest C but what is actually the lowest F on Neels’s keyboard, and he then compares it to the highest C, which is, again, an F [at least, we are consistently bad at this], and states that these are seven octaves apart…well, those two keys are actually six octaves apart. The lack of care towards realism in this scene, and the blatant inability to tailor the script to the performance or vice versa, is really very distancing, as now we are supposed to be bombarded with real pop and indie rock songs and suspend our disbelief in thinking that they are all his and we’re supposed to watch him play the wrong notes and pretend that he is the best and most talented musician across the divine and mortal worlds.
This inattentiveness certainly recurs in this performance, from Neel’s lacking miming as he passes his hand straight through the imaginary grab handle he had been holding on the tube train, to Ryall messing up her line, ‘It was better when we got inside, almost back to how it used to be’. I fail to see why director McGregor did not pick up on moments like these, and why it was not decided to refine and reshoot such scenes? Then, we have the decision to shake the camera (videography by Andrew Flynn) from side to side at the beginning of the performance as if we, the audience, are replying, “No,” when Eurydice asks us if we have heard of Orpheus’s band…yet, we do not have a single other suchlike interaction with Eurydice throughout the rest of the play; in fact, her interactions with us become completely sterile and distanced as she starts to talk at us, with narrations or inner monologues, as though we can suddenly no longer respond, where her interactions were so conversational and immersive at the beginning. Then, the extremely questionable moment when, without relevance or explanation, Ryall is handed her coat by the disembodied arm of a stagehand or yelled at by an off-screen crowd in the chip shop scene. Why?! What possible purpose could moments like this have other than to obliterate the logic of the world of the play and utterly confuse its fabric? Moments like these entirely decimate any potential psychological realism and separate the thoughtful and attentive dramatic artists from the lesser-than, and they should thus be carefully observed.
Attention to detail in the dramatic text itself, however, is a different story, altogether. Especially in Eurydice’s opening monologue, we are given far too much detail. Her speeches regularly deviate from their main cause in order to give an intricate and overly articulate description of things we would otherwise very easily understand. Once or twice, this is quirky, evoking scenarios we are all familiar with and creating a sense of relatability in the text. However, when repeated over and over again throughout, these descriptions become incredibly laborious and overworked. Take, for instance, this passage from the very first moments we see Eurydice talking to us:
“They said I was a shadow of my former self. And when someone says that, they usually mean that you look tired or thin or that you've had a haircut that doesn't suit you. Whatever they're referring to, they mean it negatively. Like, it's something that your mother might say on a Sunday when she's microwaving the carrots whilst your father struts and frets over the sudoku. It's something your ex-boyfriend might think when you bump into him at The King's Head when you're watching a two-handed Cherry Orchard.”
How incredibly exhausting is that to look at, nay read? It is ridiculously long, and to think that a similar thing happens regularly throughout the text! It is simply far too subtractive. There is far too much speech and far too little action in these scenes.
A similar problem involving Eurydice’s speech is perhaps the greatest weakness of this text which renders it so utterly lethargic and cumbersome. It seems, considering the environmentalist and sociopolitical theories present in Persephone, that writer McGregor uses the playtext as a means of expressing his political beliefs and ideological thinking — which is perfectly acceptable, and the issues and ideas raised in both Persephone and Orpheus are very poignant and resonant. However, the manner in which they manifest themselves is far too blunt. Characters in these plays are frequently used as mere spokespeople, as the mouthpiece for McGregor to express his thinkings, and self-contained and narrative-based scenes slowly become lectures on how to save the planet. When presented in this way content becomes rudimentary and crude, either a matter of “preaching to the converted” or simply losing the attention of those who do not care. Such didactic work using character and plot as its means of education should, instead, aim to teach in an engaging and practical “show; don’t tell” manner. Figuratively speaking, the characters should take us by the hand and lead us through their worlds, and show us our own experiences through their eyes, and we should learn something from the journey. Lecturing an audience on something they either already know or do not want to hear is never a good idea, especially when it comes to something so suffocative and harrowing as the global impact of human activity.
I emphasise: a speech at a length of eleven minutes and a half about the environment is no longer a character talking to an audience but a scolding disguised as a monologue. I refer, of course, to Eurydice’s speech towards the middle of the performance. Starting out on the right path and slowly declining into its politicisations, this speech is our time to understand Eurydice’s psychology, her emotional responses to what has happened to her and the stress she is under. Really, she should be traumatised at this time, unable to think of anything else, devastated, not thinking about farmers and their relationships with their livelihoods. It is our time to really connect with Eurydice, and it is easy, with how the text currently stands, to feel completely cheated out of any emotional investments we have made and simply reprimanded, instead. I should mention as a side-note the odd intertextuality present in this speech as well, as Eurydice explains she is working for Demeter. I do hope that this is all to some effect later in the series, for, currently, it just seems like a quirky feature included for the fun of it and to no avail at all. After all, the point of this series is that we are meant to believe that the gods are living and working amongst us, not amongst themselves.
Less about the text and more about the performers themselves. Overall, both performers portrayed their characters well, with particular emphasis on Ryall’s capabilities above Neels’s. However, moments of extreme emotion were incredibly lacking. The two portray funny quirks, sarcasm and coquettishness well, but scenes of more extreme emotions, anger and sorrow, expose the performers as wooden and unnaturalistic in their approach. In such scenes, they are simply unconvincing, lacklustre and, actually, completely inexpressive sometimes. I should note, though, that this is partially [only partially] due to the dramatic text itself, whose emotionality dwindles to vapidity as the play goes on.
A last few notes. Theatrical components like props, lighting and sound really do add visual intrigue to this performance, with props especially salvaging that all-important realism so devastatingly lost elsewhere. These all are well-thought-out and effective. Video editing — minus the odd interferences that keep cropping up in these plays — also make for a lively and engaging watch.
Overall, what starts out as quite a strong performance with an engaging plot and characters simply becomes an insipid display of humdrum politics and vapid music videos — oh, and then our main character is bitten by a snake and dies? Out of nowhere?! A complete lack of character to psychological realism, emotional investment, and character and plot development. I have no idea why the creatives would think this piece as lengthy it is could succeed in keeping an audience’s attention. This entire play could have been chopped in half. And, again, as last week, this entire story could be told with the absence of ancient deities. More specificity true to the series’s theme is needed. We need more than Orpheus’s ability to move rocks or the inclusion of sirens in this play to ground the series in the theme it professes to provide.