“The lord of the dark underworld, the king of the multitudinous dead, carried Persephone off when, enticed by the wondrous bloom of the narcissus, she strayed too far from her companions… he bore her away away weeping, down to the underworld.”
I found this poetic description in my dog-eared CEGEP paperback copy of Edith Hamilton’s 1942 collection of mythology.
Flowery though it is, the passage glosses over a tragedy. And that felt odd to Léda Davies, an actor, circus performer and fan of Greek mythology.
“It really struck me that in a lot of the translations, they either skipped over the fact that Hades did kidnap and then rape Persephone, or they justified it by saying, ‘Oh she wanted it because she wanted the power of being queen of the underworld.’”
Like so many of our favourite fairy tales and myths, the oldest stories we tell ourselves are about violence and subjugation.
So Davies and her co-creator Jed Tomlinson decided to tap into new conversations about rape and justice in order to update and polish this nearly 3,000-year-old tale. The result is Persephone Bound, a new, interdisciplinary show presented by Imago Theatre and Geordie Theatre in association with Davies’ and Tomlinson’s company Screaming Goats Collective.
We meet Persephone (Davies) as a university student whose brush with Hades (Eric Nyland) is at a boozy house party, not a flowering meadow. Grappling with the fallout of being attacked, she reports the crime. Persephone is treated more like the accused than the accuser at a trial-slash-game show called Her Word Against His. Presiding over it all is Judge Justice, a Zeus-like figure played by Tomlinson.
The atmospheric play puts its co-creators’ talents to good use. As a drummer and musician, Tomlinson provides the music and atmosphere. Davies uses her skills as a trained circus aerialist to soar, dangle and spin as Persephone. The silent Hades is the one managing the ropes that keep her suspended or trapped on the ground for her trial.
Tomlinson and Davies started developing the story four years ago. Six months in, a victim impact statement at a sexual assault trial went viral. Millions read about Jane Doe’s 7,138-word condemnation of her attacker, a college swimmer at Stanford, his lack of remorse and his light sentence. (This fall, Chanel Miller came out as ‘Jane’ in her acclaimed memoir.)
Then came the fall of Jian Ghomeshi, and an endless merry-go-round of famous abusers: Gilbert Rozon, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Jeffrey Epstein.
“All of these things had a huge influence on how we decided to write about it and present the material,” explained Davies. “And so we are being sensitive to it. It is Persephone who is telling the story. So it’s a chance for a woman and a survivor to tell their version of the story and their perspective.”
Persephone Bound zeroes in on ordinary story: a student assaulted by a peer, and the ongoing myths about how victims should behave before, during and after their assault. A sadly relatable tale, but told with grace, inventiveness and hope.
It’s interesting to note that this is the second Persephone-inspired show to be onstage in Montreal right now. The Segal’s Mythic the Musical reimagines Persephone as a rebellious daughter, tricked into the arms of Hades, a brooding but ultimately harmless bad boy. While there is trickery and manipulation in this theatrical universe, Persephone is less a victim than a teenager finding herself.
I asked Davies why we keep these old stories resonate with us, especially when we are trying to sort out today’s problems.
Her answer: “Sometimes we have to look at the past in order to change the future.” ■
Persephone Bound continues at Concordia’s DB Clarke Theatre (1455 de Maisonneuve W.) from Nov. 21-24, various times, ASL interpretation on Nov. 23. The 45-minute show is followed by a 30-minute talkback with the cast and a guest speaker. Recommended age 13+.