Cast member, Bethan Draycott, explores the show's relationship with feminism and what the character of Persephone has come to represent for her.
CW: Sexual abuse
In short, taking contemporary feminist perspective to Greek mythology can sometimes be depressing. Persephone is the Goddess of Spring and, later, Queen of the Underworld, but her fate within the original myths almost always finds itself at the hands of men. She’s abducted, bound to the Underworld, and in many iterations of the story she is raped (there’s even a statue in Rome depicting ‘The Rape of Proserpina’, which is the Roman equivalent to Persephone). None of this seems like the easiest basis for a musical about both romance and empowerment – at best, we can maybe call it Stockholm Syndrome.
That being said, it would be impossible to ignore the themes of consent, by standing, and autonomy that emerge from the myth, because they’re so relevant today. It’s these that contribute to why feminism is still so necessary and important.
That’s why Emma’s script is so refreshing. She uses the context of these themes to restore Persephone’s autonomy, presenting a story about strength through trauma against the backdrop of a popular myth. Instead of each life turning being steered by the men around her, Persephone’s decisions become her own. Her power becomes inherent rather than a side product of someone else.
I’m reluctant to call it a story about Persephone and Hades’ relationship, because it’s almost a precursor to that – it’s about becoming those people, and about their growth against the odds.
It’s worth adding that even though Persephone explores the nature of innocence and change, Persephone is no damsel. She isn’t a virginal Sondheim soprano singing from a balcony dressed all in white. She’s outspoken, witty, and unreserved. It’s rare to see female characters who fully inhabit their desires and feelings, and it often becomes a cautionary tale. But for Persephone, it’s returning to these aspects of herself, rather than changing them, that allow her to grow.
Persephone also avoids the toxic tropes that often surround discussions on trauma – there is no “what kills you makes you stronger”, no great revenge or even catharsis, because that’s rarely the closure offered for survivors of abuse. Even though canonically Persephone ends up with a more obvious strength and power by becoming Queen of the Underworld, the musical leaves us knowing it will only ever be on her terms, prompted by her own empowerment.
The truly feminist aspect of the play for me comes from the fact that it offers hope. Hope over vengeance. Hope that we can find strength in ourselves in a world that isn’t necessarily built to help us. Hope that power can’t be given or taken, just found. It’s a massive cliché but hope after everything is what Spring really represents. And that’s what Persephone has come to represent for me.
Persephone will run from 11th - 13th November at the Oxford Playhouse. Tickets are available at https://www.oxfordplayhouse.com/events/persephone.
Image Credit: Egisto Sani / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0