Their names are still written deep into the texture of our language; yet for most of us, in the 21st century, the gods, heroes, and legendary men and women of ancient Greece have become a kind of hazy memory, only revived by the occasional television mini-series about Jason and the Argonauts or the Trojan Wars.
Mythos: Gods, Heroes, Men, Edinburgh Festival Theatre * * * *
At the age of 62, though, the vastly talented writer, actor, entertainer and TV star Stephen Fry has become a tradition-bearer for the time when every schoolboy aspiring to join the western ruling elite was put through his paces in the ancient myths.
He not only remembers the stories, but is brilliant enough both to see that the original myths are richer, stranger, and much more brutally frank about the bloody origins of life than the bowdlerised versions of his schooldays, and to convey some of that earthy magnificence to contemporary audiences.
The result is his impressive Mythos series of books and recordings; and it has now been transformed – with the help of the Shaw Festival, Ontario, and director Tim Carroll – into a trilogy of full-length shows, in which Fry takes us, in chronological order (thank you Cronos, father of Zeus), through the coming of the gods, the stories of the heroes who descended from them, and finally the ascent of humankind, via the Trojan Wars and the odysseys (thank you, Odysseus) that followed.
Mythos the show, in other words, is not so much theatre in the conventional sense, as a truly epic piece of storytelling, in which Fry uses all his skill, fame and huge stage presence to make a packed audience of almost 2000 in the Festival Theatre feel like a group of friends gathered around a fireside. The performance is rigorously prepared, but not fully scripted. Fry retells the stories from memory; and even incorporates some extempore sections and audience participation, using Douglas Paraschuk’s simple but spectacular design – a large leather armchair in front of a huge curving cyclorama, with stunning wide-screen projections by Nick Bottomley – to involve us in a game called Mythical Pursuits, or to help us choose which story about a particular god or hero we will hear.
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And what do we learn? First, that however much we have forgotten the detail of the stories, these ancient myths still contain archetypes of the great forces in human nature that we instantly recognise, from war and art (Ares and Apollo) to erotic love and civic wisdom (Aphrodite and Athene). Secondly, that even in 2019, audiences can still be slightly shocked, and highly amused, by the fierce frankness of a series of myths that tend to place male and female forces on an equal playing field, and that dwell mightily and repeatedly on powerful imagery of impregnation, pregnancy and birth, in a way that later and much more rigidly patriarchal western cultures learned to suppress from public discourse.
And finally, that among all his other skills, Stephen Fry is a master storyteller, who – with apparent ease – holds his audience in the palm of his hand not for the two and a half hours promised for each part of this show, but for a total of almost nine hours.
I am, sadly, old enough to remember one of Stephen Fry’s first appearances in Edinburgh, in a brilliantly funny Cambridge Footlights revue of the late 1970s. Since then, though, he made his own hero’s journey, to become the man who can deliver these mighty myths with such elegance, insight and stamina; into a 21st century world which he loves, understands and celebrates, even while he reminds us that the wisdom of the ancients travels with us and within us, into our uncertain future.
Until 24-25 August