Review: Hercules, Bristol Old Vic

Bonnie Tyler’s aptly chosen lyrics ‘I need a hero!’ welcome us into the modernised Thebes of neon lights and a ping-pong table on wheels; and we are greeted by ‘gods’ facing the everyday, relatable battle for power in a world where roles and consequent expectations are assigned at birth.

Throughout the high energy and bold production, the cast innovatively weave their way through mythology to carve a very different message from the prelude’s catchy pop song. Rather than looking for a hero who’s “got to be strong”, they reveal the crippling pressure the mere concept of being strong inflicts onto boys and men alike, until unitedly dedicating to “kill that word”.

The uniqueness of this production is undoubtedly contained within the powerful ensemble cast. Instead of straying away from the audience, the young company takes advantage of their atmospheric capabilities, filling the stage and creating a sensory overload, of music, rap and movement. The physical theatre and undercurrent of punchy drums and guitar performed live in the ping-pong parlour, is reminiscent of Frantic Assembly’s pool bar in Othello, indicating the company’s modern inspiration and the cast’s industry aspirations.

This evolution of the Greek chorus is most effective within the description of Hercules’ 12 labours; no longer just narrators to the action, the chorus comedically embody the numerous trials. The traditionally cringeworthy imitation of animals subjected to most youth groups is impressively transformed into a clawing beast of gigantic stature. These labours-now community service-are altered to relate to modern life, with genetically modified Golden Apples of the Hesperides and Stymphalian pigeons suffering from indigestion who insist on terrorizing a local primary.

The wit and genuinely hilarious one-liners are littered throughout, artfully carried by the confident delivery and character-driven performances, from the youngest to the oldest of this cast. The self-devised and written performance, with the guidance of director Helena Middleton-member of The Wardrobe Ensemble and Made In Bristol alumni-clearly grasp the potential of laughter to drive home a fundamental message.

The production is pushing the boundaries of expectation, both with the serious topic of toxic masculinity, which they tackle and with the form of performance, containing numerable scenes, which deconstructs the fourth wall, in the intimate studio space. They even branch into audience participation; the front row most certainly within the danger zone for being blinded by a ping-pong ball. However, the comforting boundary of youth companies’ comedic reliance, although brilliantly incorporated, feels restrictive sometimes when their tense or intimate dialogue could have been sustained. The honest and stripped-back reassurance that although “these arms might not be as strong” as Hercules’, they’re “holding you up”, sustains the audience’s silent focus, and this heart-wrenching display of empathy could have been harnessed more throughout the performance.

Overall, an emotive representation of the flip-side of the gender revolution for women across the country. From the mouths of the next generation-our generation-things are changing, support is there, and the true ‘strength’ is to reach out and embrace it.

Bristol Old Vic Young Company are a force to be reckoned with and faces to remember. 

Hercules is playing Bristol Old Vic until 12 January 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Bristol Old Vic website.