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“The Gods of Olympus have been here for millennia […] over two thousand years later, they live among us”. Thus runs the premise of Arrows and Traps’ Talking Gods, a series of five ancient myths written and directed by Ross McGregor which weave effortlessly in and out of each other. The issues they explore are not isolated; they all collapse into one another and create a rich universe containing the pain and beauty which occupy our own world. Within this universe grows each individual play, every retelling a microcosm of love and grief which re-orients the ancient world.
Reception studies are a pioneering area within Classics. As a feminist, and a Classicist, it is difficult studying ancient myths in which women are exploited and abused. For this reason, receptions such as Talking Gods are vital because they put women in the foreground.
Thus, Persephone explores the indelible bonds between sisters Demeter and Hestia (both played by Nicolle Smartt) and the strength they provide each other, rather than the myth which focuses on Persephone’s abduction.
Orpheus is in fact Eurydice’s tale (played by Charlie Ryall), and we are taken on a heart-wrenching journey through her experience of being in a controlling relationship: “I am trapped in a myth that is not mine”. In a delightful twist, Eurydice is the one to trick Orpheus, rather than being a passive object of his whims.
Pygmalion is about a lonely programmer who falls in love with an AI called Galatea. In the myth, Pygmalion is a sculptor who scorns women and instead creates a statue, a perfect woman whom he falls in love with- a woman who is quite literally objectified. In Pygmalion, Galatea (voiced by Gabrielle Nellis-Pain) is not created by Pygmalion (played by Edward Spence); she appears mysteriously, operates outside of his control, and is in fact more powerful than him.
In the fourth play, Aphrodite, we are met with Benjamin Garrison’s sumptuous portrayal of Aphrodite. The play explores questions of gender identity and acceptance, and the pain Aphrodite undergoes as she wrestles with being the god of love and yet denied a family.
The final instalment, Icarus, brings the series to its climax with the trial of Zeus coming to a close. And yet, the trial itself is in the background; Ariadne, played by Lucy Ioannou, is the shining star of this piece as she struggles dangerously with being the “second fiddle in the family orchestra”.
McGregor threads connections throughout the fabric of all these plays, with each one referencing and even cameoing characters that came before. It is a testament to McGregor’s writing that each time a role is reprised, a feeling of warmth and recognition spreads throughout me. As a Classicist I also understand how inaccessible the Classics can be and Talking Gods is excellent for bringing myths to life. Each play is filmed with the actors looking straight into the camera and this direct eye contact invites us into the play; it is intimate, personal and, above all, relatable.
There is deep, bottomless grief in these plays, and the protagonists we grow to love struggle impossibly. However, just as the darkest winter ends and brings with it the hope of summer, each character embarks upon their own healing process. There is always hope, whether that be for the progression of women’s rights over the world or for the end of a pandemic which has devastated the globe. As is repeated in Icarus: “Spring is here. Tomorrow, sunlight will come back to the world and we can all start to rebuild and regrow.”
Talking Gods is available to watch online. For more information see Arrows and Traps’s website.