Nine months into lockdown, Ross McGregor overcame an extended period of writer's block, picked up his pen and embarked on a project that comes to audiences over the course of the next week.
McGregor is the artistic director of Arrows & Traps Theatre Company, and the director, writer and adaptor of their repertoire.
With no more knowledge of ancient Greek myths than what "everyone picks up through cultural osmosis" he tells me, he read Stephen Fry's books Mythos and Heroes and found amongst the stories "a source for a new series of shows because they're some of the first stories, and also the first plays—and it seemed fitting for us, as in some sense theatre is having to start all over again."
As a canon of work, the Myths have origins often pre-dating Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, arguably the foundation stones of Greek literature laid down in the seventh century BCE.
The stories have inspired artists of all disciplines across three millennia, and from the Parthenon Marbles around the 440s BCE to Italian Eurovision contender "Andromeda" some 25 centuries later, their heroes and villains have occupied popular culture.
The tales have transmuted across the ages, their protagonists have changed names and cross-pollinated plots, and so it is with McGregor's Talking Gods series, which he describes to me as "an anthology series of re-imagined, modernised stories.
"The characters are from the myths, but they're in a parallel modern world where deities are tangible, meetable people—they're on social media, they're dealing with climate change, own businesses, use Uber…"
Charlie Ryall, who plays Euridice in Orpheus, the second of the five plays, says the references are specific to mythology but in a way that we would understand in our day-to-day present lives.
And the stories are very much centred on the here and now, but without mention of the C-word. They are, says McGregor, "a way to talk about the feelings and experience of what we've all just gone through without actually talking about COVID. I wanted to find resonance without writing five plays about hand sanitiser and loo roll.
"I think COVID plays would bore audiences to tears. But yes, there are distinct parallels in what is happening to the characters to what has happened in real life. It's there in the scripts, but it's up to an audience to decide if they see the connection.
"They're an interesting blend of comedy, tragedy and adventure. Persephone is about family, Orpheus is about your future being derailed, Pygmalion is about isolation, Aphrodite is about self-worth and self-love, and Icarus is about grief."
The project was made possible thanks to significant funding from Arts Council England who, McGregor says were "absolutely fantastic", plus the kindness of the Arrows supporters.
Producer Christopher Tester told me that getting the funding, "was a huge relief, but also put huge pressure on the production pipeline. None of the pieces were written when we applied because the odds were so stacked against [us] actually getting them so we weren't getting our hopes up."
Fortunately, McGregor writes very quickly—he completed all five scripts in just three weeks, finding a new appreciation for the monologue form, never having written one-handers, accommodating restrictions and making them COVID-proof.
A master of understatement, McGregor tells me casting the plays over nine days from over seven thousand applicants was "quite a process… and the turnaround for every part of this has been tight. We're in essence working on five plays at once".
Each piece was filmed over the course of three or four days following rehearsals conducted in the most part over Zoom to limit exposure and risk factors with only one day in person before filming started.
"The shows were done in complete isolation with social distancing throughout," said McGregor. "It looks like a conversation between two people in the films, [but they] have never actually met in person."
Ryall and Christopher Neels, who plays Orpheus to her Eurydice, were the only exceptions as they were already in a social bubble, albeit they were also shielding and getting tested every few days, but Ryall was impressed with the arrangements:
"The Jack have been extraordinarily good at their health and safety. The whole area was completely fogged and disinfected after every set of people had been in there. Everyone was wearing masks and PPE, everything was distanced and we had all the doors open".