Orpheus X, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture

With the American Repertory Theatre's Orpheus X we reach the last instalment in "Orpheus – the journey", a useful theme in this year's Edinburgh International Festival. In Rinde Eckert's modern-day adaptation, the setting is the New York studio of the rock star Orpheus. On a stage littered with rusty girders and metal pillars, on to which moody video imagery is projected, a rock quartet tunes up. During the first 10 minutes, as a naked woman scrawls obsessively on the ground and Eckert strums frantically while bellowing over loud blasts of abrasive rock music, I wonder if it would be unethical to do a runner.

But the volume decreases and as the tragic story unfolds, in a fragmentary way, I found myself gripped by this subversive interpretation of the Orphic legend. Orpheus (played by Eckert) has never even met Euridice, far less married her. He simply held her, dying, after his taxi-driver knocked her down. Euridice, a poet, is in Hades where, cruelly deprived of her personal effects, she is allowed to write only in chalk. Persephone, the camp queen of the Underworld, helpfully points out that, as a poet, Euridice will be alright, though "narrative junkies don't do well in Hades with its lack of any future and absence of plot". Euridice will be bathed in water which will blot out all memory. Embracing the oblivion of Lethe, she will learn and feel everything anew from the perspective of a dead soul.

Overcome by guilt, the rock-god makes Euridice his muse. His inspiration blocked, and his absence causing distress to his fans, Orpheus goes to Hades to bring back Euridice. She is reluctant to accompany him and, in a defiant twist to the myth, rips off his blindfold so that he is compelled to leave her behind. The long pause in the action at this point was thrilling.

Aside from the merest homage to Gluck, Eckert has provided both the score and the libretto for this production. Suzan Hanson's Euridice expresses desperation at finding herself in Hades and hope at the prospect of a future in the Elysian fields. A burgeoning tenderness colours her singing. Eckert conveys a vivid if bland musical characterisation. The most shapely execution of melodic line comes from John Kelly, as both Persephone and Orpheus's manager. Some of Orpheus X, directed by Robert Woodruff, is undoubtedly pretentious but it is also powerful and surprisingly moving.