IT'S FRIDAY THEATRE: Dramatic hit and myths as Stephen Fry faces an epic endurance at the Edinburgh Fringe
Mythos: A Trilogy (Festival Theatre, Edinburgh)
Verdict: Hitchhiker's guide to antiquity
Emerging from Stephen Fry’s epic nine-hour, one-man Odyssey through Greek mythology, I felt — how can I put it — rather deep-Fry-ed. And I mean that as a compliment.
Mercifully Fry’s new, touring show is divided into three sub-marathons — Gods, Heroes, Men — of three hours apiece, each with a 20‑minute interval. But it’s still a stiff challenge for bottom and spine, let alone mind.
Odysseus himself in his peripatetic wanderings after the Trojan War might have been more confident of one day getting home.
But by the gods, Fry milks every minute of his allocated 480 in a masterclass of storytelling. Speaking seemingly off the cuff, he starts with the cosmic chaos before creation, then warns us we’re going to have to get used to incest, as the god Kronos and his sister Rhea beget their son Zeus — CEO of the gods.
Emerging from Stephen Fry’s epic nine-hour, one-man Odyssey through Greek mythology, I felt — how can I put it — rather deep-Fry-ed
Narrated from a comfy leather armchair, it feels a bit like Jackanory meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Fry’s old friend Douglas Adams would surely have approved).
All he has for back-up is sound effects with projections of outer space, pastoral Greek landscapes and magical woodland glades.
If, like me, you’ve wondered how these myths fit together, this is the perfect way to find out. How the Pantheon of the Gods was formed. How Prometheus moulded humans from mud, but was forbidden by Zeus to give us fire. How Pandora released evil into the world from a jar.
In Part II, Heroes, the tales of Heracles and Theseus loop into one another via the former’s 12 labours and the latter’s encounter with the Minotaur.
Then, in the final third instalment, Men, it’s Menelaus, Agamemnon and the Greeks versus Hector and Paris in the battle for Helen of Troy . . . before Odysseus does finally make it home to Ithaca.
With his cubist features and charity-shop couture, Fry is a comforting figure.
He has learned vast tranches of text from the three books on which this production is based (the last, Men, is as yet unpublished). But he likes to ad-lib and offer tasty asides, too; taking childlike delight in his material.
The audience, meanwhile, select subjects for his eager digressions in a game of ‘Mythical Pursuits’ (reminiscent of his TV programme QI). You can even pose your own questions for his ‘Oracle at Del-Fry’ (groan) by emailing him in the interval.
All he has for back-up is sound effects with projections of outer space, pastoral Greek landscapes and magical woodland glades
But be warned: Fry has a penchant for affecting cod regional accents. So the Gorgon slaying Perseus is given an Alan Bennett-style Yorkshire spin.
Hapless Andromeda, lashed to a rock in the Red Sea, sounds like Charlotte Church. On the other hand, the mighty Heracles is rendered as a Brummie — suggesting that he’s rather dim but loveable (people of Birmingham, rise up against this caricature!).
Naturally, it’s lavishly garnished with Fry’s love of etymology. He explains how hermaphrodites were revered as the original ‘intersex’ people; how Phrygian caps are now worn by Smurfs; and how ‘sycophancy’ comes from the Greek to ‘show your figs’. And, as it happens, Fry has his own weakness for showing his figs and says ‘bless you’ after every ripple of applause. An interesting invocation for an avowed atheist.
Yes, the format is repetitive — and you may find one show is marathon enough (they work as stand-alone pieces). It is, nonetheless, an exceptional trilogy.
Fry is a one-man Wikipedia, lamenting the lapse of traditional storytelling. Art, he tells us, was in Ancient Greece the daughter of memory — the goddess Mnemosyne.
And as a feat of memory, this is very fine art indeed.
- For tour dates and information visit stephenfrymythoslive.com
Dr Juliet's medical moral maze
The Doctor (Almeida, London)
Verdict: Strong medicine
Juliet Stevenson is the kind of physician who answers the question ‘Is she going to die?’ with a scoff and a dry: ‘Aren’t we all?’
Juliet Stevenson is the kind of physician who answers the question ‘Is she going to die?’ with a scoff and a dry: ‘Aren’t we all?’ Not what you necessarily want to hear in intensive care.
As the titular doctor, Stevenson is hard as nails: a grammatical pedant, a fierce defender of her profession and, in this new piece by Robert Icke, up to her neck in a medical ethics and public relations scandal.
Spoiler alert: the patient dies.
A witch-hunt ensues because The Doctor prevented a priest from administering the last rites. The fury blooms beautifully into a full fiery kerfuffle over identity politics, sexism and anti-Semitism.
‘Should a Catholic patient have a Catholic doctor?’ we’re asked again and again. Stevenson is a mighty presence. She rages, shakes, admonishes, weeps. There’s real fire behind her eyes, stoked by the drama playing out. Slowly her life is filled in with tales of grief endured and hurdles overcome. It’s worth seeing just for her. It’s a shame, then, that most of the rest of the cast are a bit flat. Her mad passion is matched only by Paul Higgins, who, as the frustrated priest and later the grieving father, is on sizzling form. Ria Zmitrowicz, too, is very watchable as a confused teen who makes the sagest observations.
The play sometimes feels like a TV debate. That’s not helped in the second half where it does turn into a TV show: a cross between Moral Maze and Kilroy.
So where before the cast was race, age and gender-blind (a short woman introduces herself as Roger; a black woman refers to herself as white), suddenly everyone is as they appear, and must defend themselves against charges of being ‘unwoke’ or ‘unconsciously biased’.
A charming wit helps here: there are jokes about insurance and the present participle. Yes, it’s baggy (three hours) and bleak. But I was still hooked.