All this week (5-9 April), you can find a free premiere each night from Ross McGregor’s Talking Gods series of new plays on the website of theatre company Arrows & Traps, who specialise in classic adaptations and historical new writing.
Each looks at a story from one of the old gods, who are now resident among us in the 21st century and finding it somewhat challenging to fit in. These stories are more detailed and longer than those in the 2020 series from the Jermyn Street Theatre, 15 Heroines, but they make good companion pieces, with their strong female characterisations.
The series opens with Persephone, which has Nicolle Smartt playing all three roles: Hestia, the goddess of hearth, home and family; Demeter, goddess of the harvest; and Persephone/Cora, the daughter who knows emojis and makes her rookie mistake with football bad-boy Apollo.
Filmed as a series of interviews, we get to know all three women very well, while fitting their myths and stories within a recognisable world of Google, Instagram, websites, PIP assessments, climate concerns, binge viewing, forced gentrification, and revenge porn.
Their story is a complex one, which looks at family conflict, close-knit relationships, revenge, and more. You may recall the story of Demeter, Hades and Persephone from the musical Mythic, or by reading the ancient myths outlined in the works of Ovid and others.
Hestia, lesser known, is very much the scene-setter and the peacemaker, devoted to her sister Demeter but also seeing the need for the modern teenager to make her own way in the world.
This production is beautifully lit – Hestia’s red fire glow, Demeter’s nature-suggesting green, Persephone’s purple. Hestia’s love of family, Demeter’s environmental activism, Persephone’s phone-based love life and single-mindedness are all clearly shown through McGregor’s finely phrased writing and Smartt’s skill at making these women come to life. There are dark moments which give drama to the sisters’ back story, and fun modern pieces (an article in the Standard about the “hippy, happy, harvester”).
Demeter leaves Olympus to “raise my child somewhere that is safe, and I will not find that here”, and yet, in the modern world, there are dangers and perils she cannot even imagine, and an exchange of messages leads the animal-loving Persephone to find her own way in the Underworld with Hades. You will know the rest, how her absence causes trees to shed their leaves and flowers to fade, until she returns to the freshness and bloom of summer.
The script is incredibly detailed and beautifully assembled: Demeter’s “grief soaks into every wall”; armchairs are so comfortable they are like “sitting in sleeping guinea pigs”. Ultimately Persephone is a piece which celebrates the bond between women, and it is an incredibly positive piece.
The second play in the series is Orpheus, in which Eurydice (Charlie Ryall), and Orpheus (Christopher Neels, with the vocals of Sam Morgan-Grahame), are travelling on a train, where he cannot look back at her. It is the familiar end of a love story we know well, and Orpheus still bewitches and manipulates his way through music – but this time he is a budding rock star when they meet in a club, and it is a long hard road with her supporting his dreams until he finds success.
As music is such a large part of this story, this play is basically a musical, punctuated by popular songs filmed in the style of expensive pop videos; contrasting with more intimate scenes which feel at times as if we are watching a relationship through a close-circuit camera. Eurydice, a nymph, is a streetwise girl – “this is not my first rodeo” – but falls fast for the shallow and self-obsessed Orpheus (“he’d steal your make-up, but he looks better in it than you do”).
This independent woman, studying agriculture and concerned about the state of the planet, finds her every move and word immortalised in the words of her partner, who puts her on a pedestal yet, never really sees her at all. We watch as his star rises but she becomes lost in her own mythology. After all, he is the god, not her, and by the way, “do you have any idea how low the standard is now with boys?”
Orpheus is all glitter and strut with his band, Jason and the Argonauts, always pushing for something a bit more, and acting borderline creep with his iron grasp on where Eurydice goes and what she does. She talks of them as ships docking together, but where she does everything while he writes about it, giving up his medical studies for writing.
He behaves strangely in the name of love, yet she falls for it, “maybe I wanted the magic, I didn’t want to know the trick”. The music choices are interesting – “Addicted to Love”, “Blinding Lights”, “Billie Jean”, “The Sandman” (referencing her inability to sleep), “Two Guys in Love”.
Orpheus is about personal freedom, the right to choose, and the ability to get away. I found it a very enjoyable piece with interesting visuals and strong performances.
Talking Gods premieres each night from 5 April 2021 at 7.30pm, and each episode is followed by a live Q&A. They are all free to view and will also be available on the Arrows & Traps YouTube channel.
They were filmed at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre. Find the series here, and look out for my review of the remaining episodes: Pygmalion, Aphrodite, and Icarus.
LouReviews received advance access to review the Talking Gods series.