In These Plays About Couples, Hell Is Other People – The New York Times

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LONDON — The underworld comes with melodic invention to spare, at least if the Broadway-bound musical “Hadestown,” stopping in at the National Theater here through Jan. 26, is any gauge. Anaïs Mitchell’s folk opera catches the ear from the first notes and leaves you eager for a second or third listen, even when the lyrics descend toward the banal.

Ms. Mitchell’s source is the time-honored tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, who turn out to be just one of many pairings (not all of them romantic) coming to grief on the London stage just now.

The spin in “Hadestown” is to wrest the myth away from the opera house (Monteverdi and Gluck both composed Orpheus-led operas) and give it a sinuous, hipster vibe. That explains the presence of the shiny-suited, übercool narrator, Hermes (the Broadway veteran André De Shields); a fresh-faced, guitar-strumming Orpheus (Reeve Carney, who appeared on Broadway in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark”); and a vibrant, jeans-wearing Eurydice, played with vocal bravura by Eva Noblezada, last year’s Tony-nominated leading lady from the revival of “Miss Saigon.”

You’d think such familiar narrative terrain might push everyone involved to find the idiosyncratic amid the generic. But for all the best efforts of the director Rachel Chavkin, “Hadestown” settles for one sung musing about nature after another (rivers one minute, flowers the next) and a refrain for the supposedly inspired Orpheus — “la la la” — that makes you wonder just how inspiring a lover he would prove.

Growling notes of dissent are sounded by Patrick Page, a second “Spider-Man” alum, whose Hades rules over an Underworld that strikes many recognizable Trump-era notes, though you have to wonder why the Underworld contains a wall. And given that Orpheus is heard to lament the “cold and dark” world aboveground, are things really that much worse in the realm below?

A parable of doubt, the show forestalls such questions with Hermes’ final admonition to the audience: “Don’t ask why, don’t ask how.” Let’s just hope those involved in “Hadestown” ask themselves at least a few tough questions before succumbing to the siren song of Broadway.

There’s not much love lost between the soul-ravaged protagonist and his politically rabid wife in “Macbeth,” the Shakespeare tragedy that has had a tough time on the British stage this year. It has now returned for yet another airing, this time within the candlelit environs of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe. (Part of a so-called “Ambitious Fiends” season of plays that also includes Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” the production will run in repertory through Feb. 2.)

The drawing card on this occasion is the coupling in the principal roles of the husband-and-wife team Paul Ready and Michelle Terry, who is also the theater’s artistic director and proved a commendably agile and lucidly spoken Hamlet on the Globe main stage this summer. Cast as the famously sleepwalking lady whose ambition drives her husband forward and derails her own warped psyche, Ms. Terry communicates a sense of impatient purpose: There’s clearly no Plan B for this apprentice to murder who watches aghast as her husband’s mind starts to fray — only for hers soon to follow suit.

The claustrophobia of the Wanamaker abets the horror-show theatrics of the director Robert Hastie, who at various points plunges the audience into darkness while fearsome noises pierce the air.

Alas, all the aural effects in the world can’t compensate for what feels here like a crucial absence at the play’s core. Briskly spoken though Mr. Ready is, we never feel Macbeth’s surrender to nihilism. Indeed, as the gathering clamor intensifies, any immediate connection it may have to the work itself recedes. Macbeth rages against sound and fury signifying nothing, and this production knows whereof its title character speaks.

At least the language in “Macbeth” can’t help but scintillate. That’s more than can be said for the ceaselessly arch, contrived back-and-forth that makes up the trying 90 minutes of “Switzerland,” the two-hander from Joanna Murray-Smith at the Ambassadors Theater through Jan. 5. This is the second recent London outing for the Australian writer, whose (much better) “Honour” was just seen in a starry revival at the Park Theater in north London.

The plot here contains one of those last-minute swerves intended to cause an intake of breath that instead left me rolling my eyes, not least because it manages somehow to seem both preposterous and predictable. Suffice it to say that in telling of an encounter by the expatriate American thriller writer Patricia Highsmith (of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” fame) toward the end of her life with a visitor named Edward Ridgeway, who may not be what he seems, “Switzerland” elides art and life so as to make Highsmith the victim of her own literary creation. But I shouldn’t say any more than that.

“Switzerland” allows for a contrast between this most famously neutral of European locales and the ceaselessly downbeat, dyspeptic Highsmith, who holds forth on any number of subjects — all of which prompt her derision or scorn or worse.

Phyllis Logan, the Scottish actress best known of late for playing Mrs. Hughes on “Downton Abbey,” plays this Texas-born malcontent with a sustained misanthropy next to which Calum Finlay’s peppy Edward seems a bit dim. (The Rodgers and Hammerstein song “Happy Talk” is invoked several times, presumably to lend an ironic gloss to the business at hand.) By the time this weird mating dance devolves into such barked broadsides as “It was an existence but was it a life?,” you may well feel that Ms. Logan’s perpetual scowl is spreading across the footlights to include the audience. Or that time spent in the company of another isn’t always time well spent.

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