Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Mythos: A Trilogy – Gods. Heroes. Men.

Stephen Fry
Shaw Festival
The Lowry, Salford
to

Stephen Fry’s return to the stage is both epic and intimate. Mythos: A Trilogy does not lack ambition being a three-part retelling of the Greek Myths for viewing in single instalments or as a full seven-hour marathon. However, despite the scale of the project, the staging is simple: sole performer Fry seated in a plush armchair for most of the show telling the stories with minimal special effects.

The overarching theme of the trilogy is tracing the maturation of the human race as we move away from dependency upon Gods and learn to stand on our two feet. Thus, the plays begin with Gods, move on to Heroes and conclude with Men.

Mythos: A Trilogy is based Fry’s series of books (of which so far there are only two). They are not an easy read; Fry likes to tell his audience everything—explaining how certain modern words and phrases have their origins in the Greek Myths or speculating about the actual location of legendary events. Fry also takes the opportunity to draw attention to the aspects of ancient Greek culture he finds admirable. As a result, the books become full of footnotes sometimes so dense as to overshadow the main plot thread.

Director Tim Carroll has devised elegant methods to allow Fry to indulge his digressive tendencies whilst ensuring the show does not bog down in detail. Throughout each part of the trilogy, the audience gets to play ‘Mythical Pursuit’ based upon the 1980s game Trivial Pursuit (true to form Fry’s description of the latter makes it sound every bit as arcane as the myths). Mythical Pursuit gives Fry the opportunity to outline (and dismiss) the Freudian interpretation of the Gorgon legend and explain how any English word beginning with ‘psy-’ can be traced back to that same myth.

Similarly, time does not allow Fry to describe the labours of Heracles in detail so, via ‘The Doorway of Destiny’; the audience selects a sample. Of course, this ad-lib approach makes tremendous demands upon the performer who has to ensure that the selections and omissions do not affect later parts of the story. Fry is a marvel at retaining and communicating complex information and is always the first to notice a rare error.

The success of the plays is entirely dependent upon Fry’s skill as a storyteller. Technical AirMagic provides discrete special effects. Circular screens to the rear of the stage allow illustrations or scenic views and clouds of dry ice make for dramatic exits, but this is very much a one-man show. There is no mistaking Fry’s enthusiasm for the subject or his sense of wonder—he luxuriates in describing how the spilt breast milk of a Goddess formed the Milky Way and the Greek words are the root of the word ‘Galaxy’ before wondering if Professor Brian Cox is aware of such details.

Fry has a knack for making strengths out of his weaknesses. Aware that the accents he adopts for the characters are dubious, Fry continually pushes his luck using a Welsh accent for an Ethiopian before going all-out and employing Michael Caine’s unmistakable tones.

Although he never talks down to the audience, Fry’s storytelling method is down-to-earth with modern phrases and contemporary accents used in the retelling of the myths. Recounting that the Gods helped build the walls of Troy he remarks they were not above a bit of contract labour. Fry does not attempt any radical reinterpretations (like Madeline Miller, whose work he praises) but rather tries to show how the influence of the myths lingers in the present day or how the ancient Greeks actually anticipated modern inventions with what amounted to the first analogue computer used to calculate periods in-between festivals and games.

Fry is on crowd-pleasing form. He takes the time to respond to questions from the audience (texted during the interval to ‘The Oracle’) and even manages to squeeze in a Harry Potter anecdote.

Although all parts of the trilogy have the same features, there are subtle differences between instalments. In Heroes, Fry plays himself—the erudite quizmaster / smart-arse with whom we are familiar from television. Men, on the other hand, opens with Fry in character as a nameless shipwrecked sailor (later revealed as Odysseus) sprawled on the stage.

It may simply be that Fry finds it easier to relate to mortals than to Gods or Heroes, but as the trilogy reaches the final instalment, the method of storytelling becomes more direct. Fry does not feel the need to explain how the audience interaction sections of the play operate and he concentrates on telling, rather than analysing, the tales.

Mythos: A Trilogy is clearly a labour of love with Stephen Fry delighting in using the theatrical medium to set out his enthusiasms and theories. The discrete and sympathetic direction by Tim Carroll gives the audience a chance to sample the scope of Fry’s vision without drowning in detail. The length and subject matter of Mythos: A Trilogy is a daunting prospect, but the passion of the presenter makes for a surprisingly engaging theatrical experience.

Reviewer: David Cunningham