A problem with spoken word shows is that everything is said. Albeit a thuddingly obvious statement, this is something that becomes clear when watching Orpheus. There is no room for interpretation or nuance when the action, emotions and meaning are being directly told to you. The charming performers do a fine enough job, but from their brief moments of improv, you find yourself wishing to spend more time with them than the blank tale they deliver.
The story of Orpheus, is, well, of Orpheus, the Ancient Greek musician who journeys to the underworld to rescue his dead wife Eurydice. Only this show provides a modern retelling, where ancient harmonies are replaced with acoustic guitars and folksy covers, and the titular poet is now the disillusioned everyman Dave. The recontextualisation feels mixed, given the first half bears almost no resemblance to the classic myth (save the love interest Eurydice, who is not provided with an updated name), while the second half mirrors it exactly. Seeking more than Eurydice herself, Dave wishes to recapture the ‘spark of life and colour’, his world feeling bleak and empty without her in his life.
This focus on modern day ennui means both characters lack much personality, their relationship filled with hyperbolic vagueness rather than any intimate characterisation. They are cyphers, and it feels they enact idealised notions of life, love and loss rather than real or authentic experiences. Instead of an adaptation of the myth, Orpheus seems more reminiscent of Garden State or other fairly predictable indie tales.
Yet the show remains endearing despite itself. The cozy informality and low-key music makes it a relaxed and comfortable experience. Guitarist Phil Grainger especially brings a warm energy that draws you into the sentimental story. Even when his guitar string snapped halfway through the first act during a particular afternoon, Grainger continued blissfully strumming, making light-hearted banter about it with his co-star Tom Figgins during the intermission. Similarly, Figgins delivers the text’s mixture of prose and poetry with enthusiasm and infectious energy. Although the story itself is nothing too special, the two performers make it a pleasant and heartfelt show. Indeed, although quite cheesy and manipulative, an audience sing-a-long to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ actually manages to transport you into this fuzzy glow of harmony and joy. The sincerity and enthusiasm of the double act seeps through their middling play, and these brief moments of pure and direct engagement are strong components. It is when the story becomes too self-possessed or obvious, especially towards the end, that Orpheus becomes frustrating, or even a little boring.
Maybe Orpheus is best compared to karaoke. If you are resistant, it can be an unbearably cheesy and a rather forced experience. But if you are willing to put in some effort, and be open to the content’s schmaltzy sentiments, it can be a fun and engaging time. Orpheus does not draw you in all the way – some work on the viewer’s part is required. Yet for those ready to accept the play’s limitations, it might end up being worth the journey.
Summerhall – Cairns Lecture Theatre (Venue 26)
August 15-26 (not 20)
Photo credit: Summerhall