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Myth me? The Greek gods saving UK theatre

Covid kept the world’s stages dark, but writer Ross McGregor says ancient wisdom can bring light to us all

The Greek myths have been around for almost as long as we have. They are a massive, sprawling collection of epic tales of heroism, love, monsters, heroes, war and gods.

The names of the main players – ZeusHerculesJasonPegasusAphroditeOedipus – have become part of our collective consciousness, our myths, our stories, our language.

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What makes the myths stand out in terms of theology is, unlike the deities in religion, the gods in Greek mythology are not perfect. They’re flawed, prone to emotional outbursts and sudden whims, and in no way immune to temptation. In many ways, despite the fact their blood is golden and their sweat is silver, they’re no better than the humans they created. It is this weakness, this jagged edge of a character flaw, that makes the myths so relatable and iconic.

In practical terms, the myths were originally a way of explaining what the early Grecian tribes saw in the world around them. The soil they stood on needed a name, so that became Gaia, and she was bounded and covered by her husband, The Sky, Ouranos (or ‘Uranus’). There was a god who moved the sun, Apollo, and a goddess that brought the night, Nix.

I spent most of 2020 anxiously holding my breath for the announcement that theatre could return

There was someone to thank when the crops grew, and someone to appease when they didn’t. There were gods for our emotions (Aphrodite and Athena), and gods for our creativity (Apollo, Hephaestus), gods of the things we feared (Ares), and gods of the things we protected (Hestia and Hera). Parts of the year were warm and summery and parts of the year were cold and wintry. While we might feel secure explaining that in terms of the angle of our axis in relation to the sun, the ancient Greeks wrote a much lovelier explanation with the goddess of the harvest, Demeter, mourning for her daughter for half of every year, thus causing the leaves to fall and the days to shorten. You can show me a diagram of the earth’s axis all you want – part of me prefers the magic of the Persephone myth.

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I spent most of 2020 anxiously holding my breath for the announcement that theatre could return. Being the artistic director of a small London-based theatre company who had its first two UK tours curtailed and cancelled by Covid, I wanted to know when I could make a show happen.

Not being able to work, write and see the rest of my theatre family was like a little death. We had gone down into the underworld, and I was going to need more than a ditty from Orpheus to get us out.

It’s not about what we’ve been through, it’s about what comes next

However, with the best of intentions, live theatre just wasn’t possible with things how they were – we would have to take the theatre shows online. We wanted to provide actors and creatives with work, but also give our audiences theatre they could experience in the comfort of their own homes. This was a brave new world for us, a sense of starting all over again, so it seemed right to choose the Greek myths – the very first forms of theatre – back in the times of Euripides and Sophocles. I wanted, in a time when theatre was having to do what it does best – adapt to survive – to go back to the beginnings of the art form but rewrite them with a modern sensibility and give them a 21st century revamp. A new do. Everyone loves a tidy new haircut, this year more than ever.

But what to write about? Who amongst us can honestly say that they can watch a scene in a movie now that’s set in a crowded nightclub or packed restaurant and not feel like they’re watching some alien planet from a different dimension? Ye olde days of 2019 seem further away than the Magna Carta, and yet I knew I didn’t want to write about Covid. And no one, absolutely no one, would want to hear about Covid. If the writers of Covid: The Musical, Isolation: The One Man Show and Me & Boris: Love in Lockdown are reading this – and I know you exist somewhere out there – please, please, please stop writing it.

Theatre will return for us, one day soon. And your life will return. Your friends, and family and work, and holidays, and pubs – sweet, sweet delicious summer beer gardens.

So this is how I approached the myths – yes, if you want to look at them in terms of relevance Persephone is about the importance of home and family, who hasn’t missed that in the last 12 months – and Pygmalion is dealing with the danger of technology isolating you from other people, and we all know the cloying dead sound of an empty room – just ask the cackling managing directors of Zoom. But more than those tertiary themes, Talking Gods is about hope. 

It’s about dealing with the past, about moving on from power structures that control, neglect and dominate us, it’s not about what we’ve been through, it’s about what comes next. Theatre will return for us, one day soon. And your life will return. Your friends, and family and work, and holidays, and pubs – sweet, sweet delicious summer beer gardens. We will get through this with patience, kindness and a clear head.

And I think that’s what I wanted Talking Gods to say. Because at one point in time, tribes of people gathered together around a fire, to keep warm and out of the way of predators and enemies. And in the flicker of the firelight someone, maybe a father, maybe a grandmother, maybe a seer, maybe a hunter, cleared their throat and told a story. To keep the night at bay. To keep the fires burning. To set light to the imagination with gods and monsters.

Talking Gods, a digital festival of five reimagined Greek myths takes place on April 5-9 with a modern mythological tale premiering each night, followed by a live Zoom Q&A: Persephone, Orpheus, Pygmalion, Aphrodite and Icarus arrowsandtraps.com/talkinggods

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