André De Shields is currently appearing as Hermes in The Royal National Theatre’s production of Hadestown in the Olivier Theatre through January 26.
The two-time Tony nominee and Emmy winner is delighted to be back in London having last enjoyed a successful run in The Full Monty at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 2002. The Full Monty won the London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical.
Celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin have transformed Hadestown, Mitchell’s acclaimed concept album into a genre-defying new musical that mixes modern American folk music with vintage New Orleans jazz to reimagine a sweeping ancient tale.
I spent the week with André from previews to opening night and a day trip to Stonehenge and Bath. Check out our chat below.
Lia: What does it feel like to be back in London with Hadestown?
André: Hadestown is my fourth engagement as a performing artist in the UK. First was Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 1979 at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Second was William Bolcom’s musical illumination of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, in which I sang the role of The Rock Singer with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall in 1996. Third was The Full Monty at The Prince of Wales Theatre in 2002. And now Hadestown at The Royal National Theatre. Each of the experiences inspired admiration and support among my American colleagues. However, when I shared the news that I would be off to The National Theatre as Hermes, Messenger of the Gods, in Hadestown, the admiration and support evolved into awe and vicarious thrills. That is the power of the reputation of The National Theatre. Hadestown at The National is more than employment and other than a gig; this engagement is cultural ambassadorship.
Lia: How has London changed?
André: I find London a very different city in two major aspects: the one is how it has eclipsed New York in terms of cosmopolitanism, and the other has to do with architecture. During my previous three journeys, I was able to interact at eye level with London’s Old World splendor. Today, it takes a stretch of the neck to appreciate the many glass and steel–dare I say it?–skyscrapers that populate the London skyline.
Lia: What has your experience been working at the National Theatre?
André: Working at London’s National Theatre is an explicit education in why America has yet to embrace a national theatre. Regardless of the global concern about Brexit, the uniquely British idea of commonwealth permeates the very environment and work ethic at The National. Perhaps the institution has not always operated in this fashion, but my experience is one of inherent diversity, equity and inclusion. Of course, there is division of labor, but I am hard pressed to recognize any remnant of hierarchy or residue of a pecking order. Now, before I am accused of having succumbed to an infection of blind optimism, I promise that I left my rose-colored glasses at home in New York. I am no Pollyanna; rotating repertory–the foundation of work at The National–is not possible if one’s dedication is to self-aggrandizement. Moreover, there are paid mandatory hiatuses. Why? Because rest and renewal are necessary to sustained excellence in the creative process that commences with conception and concludes with execution. Unheard of in American theatre When Hadestown is on hiatus, The Olivier Theatre’s stage is further hallowed by Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Such cross pollination makes for a beautiful and bountiful harvest.
Lia: What about the character of Hermes speaks to you most?
André: Okay, how much time do you have? I will relegate my response to the five most idiosyncratic agencies possessed by Hermes that attract me to him, and that specifically relate to Hadestown: (1) Hermes is, indeed, the messenger of the gods; however, he also is a divine trickster, which is why–I believe–Hades, God of the Underworld, chooses Hermes to explain to Orpheus and Eurydice the conditions of their release from land of shades. The offending codicil is that Orpheus must walk in front of Eurydice, and resist turning around to make sure that she is following him; for if he does turn, then Eurydice goes back to the underworld. (2) Hermes is the inventor of the lyre, which is the instrument that Orpheus has mastered to magical efficacy, so much so that his playing of a melody convinces Hades to allow him and Eurydice to attempt to escape. (3) Hermes also is the god of roads, read journeys. And it is the journey of Orpheus to the underground and back that is the conceit of Hadestown. (4) Hermes is the only god who can breach the veil that separates the living from the dead, absolutely pertinent to the schism between the world above ground and the one below. (5) Hermes is the inventor of speech. Who better to be the storyteller of Hadestown?
Lia: What is your favorite part of the show?
André: No spoilers, please.
Lia: How have you spent your free time?
André: Cooking for the many loved ones who have taken this National Theatre opportunity to refresh their friendship with me.
Lia: Why do you think the show has been resonating with audiences?
André: Hadestown treats three major themes–trust, truth and trauma. Who doesn’t need a lesson in those three common denominators of humankind?
Lia: How long have you been part of Hadestown?
André: Intermittently, since the 2012 workshop at the Doris Duke studios.
Hadestown stars Reeve Carney (Orpheus), André De Shields (Hermes), Amber Gray (Persephone), Eva Noblezada (Eurydice) and Patrick Page (Hades). The cast also features Sharif Afifi (Worker), Rosie Fletcher (Lachesis), Beth Hinton-Lever (Worker), Carly Mercedes Dyer (Atropos), Seyi Omooba (Worker), Gloria Onitiri (Clotho), Aiesha Pease (Worker), Joseph Prouse (Worker), Jordan Shaw (Worker) and Shaq Taylor (Worker).
Check out what the critics had to say:
“Hermes the messenger god, played sublimely by Andre De Shields, the very epitome of cool…He’s completely spellbinding, with hints of mischief and mystery. There’s so much style in everything he does.” – Tim Bano, The Stage
“André De Shields, the original Broadway Wiz in ‘The Wiz’, is scene-stealingly brilliant as a suavely shamanic Hermes.” – Andrezej Lukowski, Time Out London
“Our core performers…De Shields…expertly conceived performances that blend the power of musical storytelling with sensitively characterised portrayals. Their performances are shaded with the confidence and poise, and they become robust emotional canvasses whom we can trust with sharing Mitchell’s story with us.” -Adam Bruce, UK Review
“…the wonderful, charismatic André De Shields as Hermes channels Smokey Robinson in a shiny suit and introduces the action and its meaning.” – Sarah Crompton, What’s On Stage
In a career spanning forty-eight years, André De Shields has distinguished himself as an unparalleled actor, director, choreographer and educator. He is the recipient of three Jeff Awards, one as Director for Victory Gardens’ 1987 production of The Colored Museum, and two as Featured Performer in a Musical for the Goodman Theatre productions of Play On! (1998) and Mary Zimmerman’s The Jungle Book (2013). In fact Mr. De Shields’ professional career began at Chicago’s Shubert Theatre, now the Bank of America Theatre, in the 1969 production of Hair. From there he moved on to The Me Nobody Knows at the Civic Opera House, and ultimately became a member of The Organic Theatre Company, where he created the role of Xander the Unconquerable, Ruler of the Sixth Dimension in the cult sensation Warp. A multiple Tony Award nominee, he is best known for his show-stopping performances in four legendary Broadway musicals: The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Play On! and The Full Monty. He recently appeared in Papermill Playhouse’s production of Half Time, Off-Broadway in Classic Stage Company’s As You Like It and Playwrights Horizon’s Mankind by Robert O’Hara.
His numerous accolades include an Emmy Award for the NBC Special based on Ain’t Misbehavin’, the 2007 Village Voice OBIE Award for Sustained Excellence of Performance, the 2009 National Black Theatre Festival’s Living Legend Award, a 2012 Fox Foundation Fellowship in Distinguished Achievement, Florida Atlantic University’s 2014 Making Waves Award, the Theatre School at DePaul University 2015 Award for Excellence in the Arts, the Riant Theatre’s 2016 Pioneer of the Arts Award, the Black Theatre Network’s 2016 Winona Lee Fletcher Award, a 2016 Beinecke Fellowship at Yale School of Drama, a 2018 Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement Award and nine AUDELCO Awards. and two Doctor of Fine Arts degrees honoris causa one each from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the State University of New York-College at Buffalo.
Click here for tickets to Hadestown.
December 12 @ 7:30pm
December 13 @ 2pm & 7:30pm
December 14 @ 7:30pm
December 15 @ 2pm & 7:30pm
December 21 @ 7:30 pm
December 22 @ 2pm & 7:30pm
December 26 @ 7:30pm
December 27 @ 2pm & 7:30pm
January 4 @ 7:30pm
January 5 @ 2pm & 7:30pm
January 7 @7:30pm
January 8 @ 2pm & 7:30pm
January 22 @ 7:30pm
January 23 @ 7:30pm
January 24 @ 2 pm & 7:30pm
January 25 @ 7:30pm
January 26 @ 2pm & 7:30pm
Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.
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