Orpheus in the Underworld

Scottish Opera and Northern Ireland Opera’s co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s 1858 comic opera maintains the cheeky spirit of previous versions, updating the composer’s bawdy take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth to mirror the world we live in now. Gone is the original’s mockery of Parisian life in Napoleon’s Second Empire. Abandoned is the dodgy London Underground train that whisked the characters to Hades in Sadler’s Wells’ memorable 1965 adaptation. This time, the story takes place in a tabloid-strangled London, filled with wannabe celebrities and fat-cat bankers fending off their hangovers by reaching for yet another bottle of champagne.

Jane Harrington gives it her all as self-obsessed celebrity chav Eurydice whose voice could strip paint, spilling out of a dress that makes her look like a lustful Red Velvet cupcake. She is locked into a marriage of mutual hatred with composer and violinist Orpheus (a preening and pompous Nicholas Sharratt), whose symphonies bring her out in hives. But as much as they can’t stand each other, their need to hold on to their fanbase is greater. As Public Opinion (Maire Flavin) – a newsprint-covered vision of media hypocrisy in a pair of fetish specs – makes clear to a quaking Orpheus when she visits, headline-inflamed moral outrage is a British national pastime. Divorce is out of the question.

Unfortunately, this potential scandal is quickly eclipsed by Orpheus’s cack-handed attempt to electrocute his wife’s lover, smarmy personal trainer Aristaeus, which ends up killing Eurydice instead. To make matters worse, Aristaeus is actually Pluto, ruler of Hades, in disguise. Quicker than you can say ‘Oo-er missus’, Eurydice is being chained not unwillingly to a double-bed in the Underworld and her husband is facing a PR disaster of mythic proportions. He may not want her back, but if he is to avoid Public Opinion’s threats of endless talk-show torture, he has no choice. Reluctantly, he asks Jupiter (Brendan Collins), the king of the gods (here the beleaguered owner of a swanky bar filled with immortally bored City boys and eternally Sloane rangers), to help him enter Pluto’s realm to rescue her.

Don’t come to this show tempted by its modern-day setting into expecting pointed satire. The targets are so broad and the stereotypes used to represent them so colourfully familiar that you could hit them from space. Rory Bremner’s breathless new translation is deliberately more pants-down panto than coruscating social comment; populated by cartoonish bankers (boo-hiss), amoral journalists and fame-seeking airheads ripped indiscriminately from broadsheet opinion columns and the pages of Heat magazine.

Director Oliver Mears’s production revels in this nearness to the off-stage world. Whether it’s a reference to cash-strapped Greece or a flustered Public Opinion revealing that she nearly walked in on Hamlet in the studio next door, there’s an undeniable buzz, a sense of inclusion, to watching something playing itself out seemingly in real time. It’s for this reason that the opening scenes falter. Eurydice’s spat with Orpheus against a blown-up cover of Hi! magazine feels dated, a throwback to the coffee table glossies of the ‘90s. For a piece that depends on existing messily and noisily in the moment, it’s a misstep.

The pace improves when the gods turn up, with a nicely choreographed and strangely moving bar scene in which the Olympians, eyes closed and slumped on elbows, move in somnambulant synchronicity as they sing softly about the endlessness of their days. The plaintive sound of the piano being played to the left of the stage works particularly well here; lending a more subtle immediacy to the proceedings.

Throughout, the cast performs with gusto and good voice and the score provides a witty counterpoint to the words. But too many of the songs go on for too long, hacking away at the same joke or theme to the point of becoming aimless and, even worse for a show that depends on provoking a reaction, boring.

In the end, whether you find Orpheus in the Underworld outrageously funny or want to leave at the interval will depend on your tolerance for groan-worthy puns, Eurydice’s genitally-fixated malapropisms and the endless novelty of singing words like “cock” and “shit” to opera. But after an increasingly bizarre sequence in which Jupiter has boisterous sex with Eurydice while disguised as a housefly with a penchant for bondage gear and PVC, you may not be able to access your critical faculties anyway.

First published by Exeunt Magazine