Stephen Fry’s Mythos at the Shaw Festival is precisely as advertised.
Over three nights, the English comedian, author and quiz-show host simply tells ancient Greek myths – first focusing on the Gods; then on Heroes such as Heracles and Theseus; and finally on Men off to fight the Trojan War or trying to return home afterward.
Fry does so mostly seated in a wingback chair, his sonorous voice amplified by a microphone to fill the 856-seat Festival Theatre and make us feel like we’re at his feet by the hearth.
It’s storytelling. It’s lecture. It’s a live podcast. It’s durational performance art.
But is Mythos theatre? And is it a sign of an intriguing new direction for the Shaw Festival – or of the desperation that leads to a dependence on stars that has nearly killed drama on Broadway.
It’s a strange experience, and really only the lot of a critic, to watch a show centered on a celebrity who means nothing to you, akin to attending a church service of a god you don’t worship.
To the Shaw Festival spectators who are paying hundreds of dollars to see his trilogy, Stephen Fry is an admired figure from his comedy, books, Harry Potter audiobook narration or advocacy efforts regarding mental health and gay rights.
I, however, had little relationship with the 60-year-old performer. In the context of theatre, Fry was best known to me for a legendary episode of stage fright that led him to flee a West End production and, indeed, England back in 1995 – which he later spoke of as a total breakdown that led to his discovery that he was bipolar.
I needed to be convinced of the merits of a major Ontario theatre company long known for its ensemble anchoring its season around solo shows by an imported famous fellow with limited theatrical experience.
Here’s the odyssey my thoughts went on over seven-and-a-half hours.
Day 1: Gods
Watching the first episode of Mythos, my doubts as to whether Fry is up to the job quickly evaporate. He and Tim Carroll, the artistic director of the Shaw Festival now in his sophomore season, have tailored these shows perfectly to his non-theatrical talents and around his persona, as one British critic put it, “teacher-cum-quizmaster.”
Fry – who, impressively, seems to shape his stories in real time rather than to have memorized a script – begins with the Greek origin story of the universe out of chaos and quickly moves on to tell of the first entities, the Titans that followed them and the 12 gods who eventually ruled from Mount Olympus.
It’s surprisingly enthralling, rather than exhausting.
Every so often, a round of “Mythical Pursuit” interrupts Fry’s straightforward storytelling. Six coloured categories appear on screens hanging in a semi-circle at the back of the stage – and audience members are encouraged to shout one out. Fry then stretches his legs as he extemporizes on, for instance, how a story he has just told relates to his personal history, or psychology, or technology, or the English language. (This is a play marathon during which you will learn the Greek origin of the word marathon, as well as enthusiasm, mnemonic…)
In one of these endearing asides, Fry, born in 1957 in London, relates the roots of his obsession: discovering a book called Tales from Ancient Greece as a young boy, then reading it over and over in a home without television.
This perhaps explains why Fry’s interests in the myths still lean toward those of a precocious prepubescent boy. He gets giddy about the gruesome bits – returning frequently to Kronos chopping off his father Ouranos’s clockweights, for example.
He’s often silly about sex.
And he’s more interested in adventure than emotion: In his telling of King Midas, the ruler shrugs off turning his wife and daughters into gold, the gravity of his gift from the gods only hitting him over breakfast when he clunks his teeth against an apple.
What is Fry’s goal? Rather than aiming to rescue the Greek myths from the myths built up around them (as Emily Wilson has in her game-changing new translation of The Odyssey) or putting an original spin on them (as playwrights have literally since plays began), Fry professes – in his introduction to the book Gods is based on – to be “only concerned with telling the stories” rather than explaining or investigating them.
I think this really means that he is only concerned with telling these ancient tales in the tradition he was told them – that is, likely in fairly recent retellings by other, mostly, white, British men. You’ll find, for example, that Fry speaks regularly in Mythos of women being “ravished” – a tellingly dated verb that puts cotton balls around its meaning. (And this from a fellow who just debated against “political correctness.”)
Fry’s filter is most audible in his allocation of a variety of English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish accents – impeccably mimicked – to the gods, heroes and men in his stories.
This will certainly appeal to the tourists visiting Niagara-on-the Lake for whom the Shaw Festival has always seemed not a Canadian theatre, but Britain on a budget.
But to others, it might seem like a recolonization of the imagination at a time when, for instance, our Anne Carson is the translator of choice for Greek tragedy in London and New York.
Describing and depicting Hera, the queen of the gods, sister-wife to Zeus, as a cross between Lady Bracknell and Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha, certainly won’t make her more accessible to Canadian children, anyway.
And yet, and yet: Fry is undoubtedly charming and funny and it is very easy to fall under his storytelling spell. As I leave the first night, I find myself won over by his magnetism and passion for passing on these tales, if not yet the underpinnings of the enterprise.
Day 2: Heroes
The second night of Mythos focuses on heroes – and you may very well wonder how Fry fits 12 labours of Heracles and another half-dozen of Theseus into a mere 120 minutes.
Well, Carroll, the director of the shows, is a proponent of mild audience participation that he calls “two-way theatre” – and that pops up in segments called Doorways of Destiny where Fry selects an audience member to choose which quests we will hear about.
On this night, a volunteer picks door No. 4 of 10 for Heracles: The Erymanthian Boar.
While the device is a chance for Fry to show off how much he has crammed in his formidable noggin about these brave (but, let’s face it, slightly boring) heroes, it also opens the door to that question hanging over Mythos in general: Why are we hearing this particular selection of myth and legend? Surely, we should be listening to the slices Fry considers the most crucial, not ones that he considers optional. His knowledge may be encyclopedic, but his project shouldn’t feel like a series of encyclopedia entries: short and superficial.
At the end of his section on Heracles, Fry mentions the hero’s second wife, Deianira, who accidentally kills her seemingly invincible husband out of insecurity (and thanks to the skullduggery of a nasty centaur named Nessus). She passed as a blip. I longed for that dramatist named Sophocles, who saw in Deianira, her jealousy and fear of losing love, the basis of an entire gut-wrenching play: Women of Trachis.
No guts are wrenched by Fry’s approach, only splayed by weaponry. Oddly, he makes us feel most for a monster: His version of Theseus and the Minotaur is memorably mournful in its depiction of the tormented bull-man at heart of the labyrinth. Carroll’s staging of this episode, too, pulls Fry out of his easy chair (and habits) and is captivating in its simplicity. Suddenly, some showing rather than telling – a theatrical moment that helps the Shaw’s new Scheherazade avoid execution by this critic on this night.
Day 3: Men
The virtues and failings of Mythos are most apparent in its final installment – which gives us a one-hour precis of The Trojan War and then The Odyssey.
These stories are still very well known, especially in theatre where bits and pieces have been broken off and dramatized, adapted or deconstructed from Aeschylus to Atwood.
Fry’s lack of a take, then, is problematic – and he seems to have bitten off more than he can chew in condensing the war to 60 minutes. He spends a great deal of time relating the backstory of Paris – and then rushes through the rest once he runs away with Helen. Achilles, similarly, is set up at length, then bumped off. The Trojan Horse is a mere shadow projected on the wall.
After intermission each show, Fry returns as “the Oracle of DelFry” to answer a question e-mailed in from an audience member. At Men, it is from a young woman who wonders: “Why didn’t Helen just go home?” A big laugh ensues, but it’s a great question – and the only time I see Fry stumped.
In this moment, I yearn for a Euripides to take us into the mind of Helen (or any of The Trojan Women he dramatized). But, again, this is Mythos only as advertised: It’s not Goddesses, Heroines and Women.
And the second half of Men is strong, despite a few technical glitches. Carroll earned his international reputation directing what is called “original practices” Shakespeare – performances in a style meant to approximate how the Bard’s plays might have been presented in Elizabethan London.
During Fry’s retelling of The Odyssey, however, it occurs to me that we are watching “original practices” Homer. These myths were originally transmitted orally before they had an author, if indeed they had an author. Fry is continuing that tradition of passing them down, to use the Homeric phrase, through “winged words.” If the result is idiosyncratic and limited by the teller, well, that tells us something in itself.
Fry indulges us with a bit of sentiment at the end, too – focusing on Odysseus’s desire to reunite with his beloved, Penelope. A final bit of etymology our English egghead imparts in that context is that nostos, Greek for homecoming, combined with algos, the word for pain, gives us the word nostalgia.
Here the motivation behind Mythos snaps into focus: Fry’s desire to return not only to the stories of his youth, and also, through them, to an ostensibly simpler time and ways of telling. These are bedtime stories for nostalgic grown-ups, not a new generation – which explains why he peppers them with the occasional lecture about distracting digital devices and families not eating dinner together enough.
In the end, Mythos did satisfy a nostalgic desire in me as a theatre-goer – to return to when a festival really was a festival. The Shaw calls itself one, but, no longer focused on a particular playwright or period, feels more and more like any other regional theatre company, just one that, for some reason, gets more private and public funding.
Spending three days contemplating the Greek myths and how deeply embedded they are in our source code felt like an occasion, the Shaw a destination. It whet my appetite for more such events and, indeed, another trilogy based on myth coming to Niagara-on-the-Lake next year: The Mahabharata. Will Fry’s fans return when the God fame is gone?