First seen as part of Arrows & Traps’ online Talking Gods series during lockdown, Persephone has since been expanded and adapted for live performance by writer and director Ross McGregor. This original retelling of Persephone’s abduction by Hades brings the gods down to earth – both literally and metaphorically – in a clever and hard-hitting examination of modern life through the eyes of the immortals.
Fifteen years ago, Hestia (Beatrice Vincent) and Demeter (Cornelia Baumann) left behind their abusive, manipulative brother Zeus (Jackson Wright) and chose to settle among the humans. Together, they’ve raised Demeter’s baby Cora – who will later come to be known as Persephone (Daisy Farrington) – and fought to protect her from the horrors they themselves suffered at the hands of her uncle and father (both Zeus). But in doing so, goddess of the harvest Demeter inadvertently ends up pushing her spirited daughter into the arms of Hades, a much older man who runs a dog shelter in Eastbourne. Desperate for her return, the sisters are forced to turn to their brother for help – but at what cost?
The outcome of Persephone’s story is well known, but the origins less so, and for most of Act 1 you could be forgiven for wondering what all this has to do with the eponymous character, not least because the first character to speak is – as Hestia herself acknowledges – a little known one. Beatrice Vincent is heartbreakingly good as the goddess of home and hearth, whose timid exterior hides a will of steel when those she loves are threatened. Her gentleness is a soothing balm next to the foul-mouthed abrasiveness displayed by Cornelia Baumann as her sister Demeter – who, in stark contrast to Hestia, uses her prickly exterior to mask the damage and vulnerability within. It’s their story that lies at the heart of the play, and though Daisy Farrington and Jackson Wright give equally impressive performances, it’s the central pair who grasp and hold our attention throughout, particularly in Act 2. (That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Wright’s undeniably powerful rant about the perils of the internet – a moment that jars slightly with the rest of the plot, but still leaves you slightly breathless with the sheer rage of it.)
The adaptation of the traditional Persephone myth to a modern world is ingeniously done, and McGregor’s script is packed with a dizzying amount of cultural references, leaving the audience with plenty to mull over on the way home and in the days afterwards. Ultimately this is a story of female empowerment in the face of male violence; both Hestia and Demeter have suffered in different ways at the hands of a man who quite simply doesn’t like to be told no, and it’s depressing to realise how little has changed over the centuries. Framing the story is a court case at which Zeus appears to be about to pay for his crimes – but the play’s ending is left open, and having seen his charm and manipulation in action earlier in the play, it’s not hard to imagine this powerful man in a nice suit somehow wriggling off the hook.
As ever, the production looks stunning; Odin Corie’s gorgeous costumes perfectly encapsulate the personality of each character; video design from Laurel Marks provides a powerfully evocative backdrop, particularly in combination with Jonathan Simpson’s atmospheric lighting; and beautifully choreographed movement sequences from Matthew Parker eloquently supplement the script, enveloping us wordlessly in the characters’ lives.
This production has everything that has always made Arrows & Traps so compelling to watch: great performances, exquisite design and intelligent, imaginative writing that finds the relevance in classic stories and shines new light on them. Most of us have heard the story of Persephone at some point in our lives – but almost certainly never told quite like this.
Persephone is at the Jack Studio Theatre until 17th September.