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Fry ‘held audience in the palm of his hand’ in Mythos performance

Maxim Mower reviews the Oxford performance of Stephen Fry's touring show on the classic myths

Stephen Fry’s latest show at the Oxford New Theatre, ‘Mythos’, is a three night event, with each performance covering a different realm of Greek myths. The first is ‘Gods’, the second ‘Heroes’, and the third ‘Men’. In theory, then, although each performance can stand on its own, this is a seven and a half hour long show. If this wasn’t impressive enough, the cast list for ‘Mythos’ is just one name long: Stephen Fry himself.

Despite Fry rightly being heralded as one of the greatest storytellers of our time, I had my reservations going into ‘Mythos’. Fry undoubtedly has enough charisma and charm to match any one of the Olympian characters in his tales, but could he hold the audience’s attention for such a mythological marathon as this?

The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. The first act was riveting, with Fry sprinkling tasteful doses of humour into the Greek story of creation, somehow managing to make Kronos’ cannibalistic tendencies towards his children sound hilarious. Balancing out the laughter are moments of darkness and poignance, with Fry leaning in to the audience as if sharing a secret, placing careful emphasis on each word, warning the viewers to take heed of what he was saying. An example is his veiled criticism of Brexit in telling the story of a town that forgot Zeus’ most highly regarded principle, that of hospitality, and the welcoming of strangers into the household.

Stephen Fry as himself in Mythos: A Trilogy – Gods. Heroes. Men. Photo by David Cooper.

For parts of his performance, you could be forgiven for mistaking Stephen Fry for a particularly affable and talented lecturer, teaching a class of University students. The only difference being that he held the audience in the palm of his hand throughout, with there being few times when he rambled, giving the mind a chance to wander. It is quite remarkable really, in this era of short-attention spans, where everything is condensed into 140 characters or less, that Fry would want to take on such a mammoth oratory challenge. Even more surprising, is that he manages to keep his audience entertained without the many bells and whistles that most productions use.

He takes a couple of brief diversions for a mini-adaption of Trivial Pursuit (aptly called ‘Mythical Pursuit’), where audience members choose from an assortment of topics, on which Fry will then expand upon. This is clearly a result of producers’ worries about maintaining the viewers’ focus, but to be quite honest the show doesn’t really need it.
It does, however, offer an illuminating insight into the motivation behind Stephen’s retelling of the great Greek myths. One could be forgiven for looking sceptically upon his ‘Mythos’ tour as being mere advertisements for his accompanying books, and as the show began I must admit I had lingering doubts in the back of my mind.

But partway through the second act, somebody chose the ‘Stephen’ option in his Mythical Pursuit game, and he proceeded to tell the audience what it was that made him want to get so involved in Greek mythology. He said it was his mother who first introduced him to the wonderful tales of Ovid and Homer, and then expanded on how he would read their stories for hours on end, making Greek mythology ‘his subject’ whenever his family watched gameshows.

In regaling us with this context, he eased the minds of any sceptics that remained, and his passion is clear from how eagerly he paints the beautiful scenes of Mount Olympus and Othrys, before allowing the terrifying images of war between the Titans and Gods to seep into his tapestry, turning the overall picture into an amazingly eclectic myriad of colours and sights.

There are very few people with the gravitas that Fry possesses, and when watching ‘Mythos’ one can’t help but see him as our modern day equivalent to the great orators, the Ovids and the Homers, that he is emulating. While the first act impresses more in terms of the fiery, monstrous tale of how the world was created from chaos, the second act arguably draws you in more. Fry meanders through amusing and moving stories of Hermes, Apollo, Midas, Pan, and more. We find ourselves following one character at a time, and you end up rooting for them, in a way that many fully-formed plays never get you to.

The staging is fairly minimal, with Fry sitting on a high-backed chair, with a small round table beside him, on which a glass of water stands largely untouched. There are five rectangular panels behind him, which all combine throughout the show to form images ranging from constellations, to Greek sculptures, to artistic representations of the tale Fry is telling at that time. They are simply accompaniments, designed to complement him, catching the eye every now and then, but not drawing any attention away from his captivating stories.

It is perhaps fitting that Fry brings his boyish enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge on Greek mythology to Oxford. As we slowly drown in essays and coursework it is easy to lose our passion for whatever it is we are studying. To some extent, Fry rekindles a lost spark, and reminds us what it feels like to love learning.

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