It seems entirely appropriate that one of the world’s greatest storytellers is telling some of the world’s greatest stories.
In news that will thrill his legions of fans across the country, Stephen Fry is undertaking his first UK tour in nearly 40 years. Rightly hailed as a wonderful storyteller, he is travelling the country with his new show, “Mythos: A Trilogy – Gods. Heroes. Men.”
Stephen pitches up at the New Theatre Oxford on Wednesday for the first of this trilogy of plays about Greek Gods, Heroes and Men. And, he says, these timeless tales resonate to this day.
Mythos – Greek for “story” – is divided into three separate shows. Loosely scripted, each evening will afford the audience the opportunity to revel in Stephen’s signature wit, natural charm and effortless intelligence.
Drawing on his immense knowledge of Greek mythology, Stephen has an excess of stories even for three shows, so his audience will aid him in selecting which tales to recount.
This means that Mythos will be different every night. It promises to be one of the most captivating theatrical events of the year.
Even though the three Mythos productions are all self-contained, they also form a coherent sequence. Therefore, those lucky enough to have tickets for all three shows will be able to trace a beautifully satisfying arc.
“It’s not stand-up comedy and it’s not drama,” says the 61-year-old Renaissance Man.
“It feels like a new genre, and yet it’s the oldest genre there is – gathering people round the fire to tell them the story of how everything began.
“The myths are such great stories, and it just struck me as a fun way of telling them. I also noticed a lot of people really enjoy audio books. Because these stories were originally told to other listeners, they work incredibly well in that communal sense of the hearth. After a long day’s work or a long day chasing antelope, early humans would all come back and sit round the fire and tell stories of how the world was made and how spiders would spin webs and so on.”
The enduring power of Greek myths is mirrored by their reverberation in literature.
He says: “The stories cast a kind of spell if you are telling them right. Two of the most popular ‘man-made’ mythological sequences are the Tolkien and the JK Rowling series. You could add to that what is known as the MCU, the Marvel Comics Universe, and Game of Thrones to that mix.
“These are 20th century versions of Greek myth and they owe everything to Greek myth. It shows there’s a great yearning for stories which are out of our own milieu. The moment you are inside that story, it’s more universal because it’s about the human spirit without it actually being about living in London, or living in Manchester, or living in New York, or living in Hong Kong, which is a very specific thing.”
He goes on: “I think that’s why people flock to see things like The Lord of the Rings, The Avengers or Game of Thrones. You have the elemental nature of greed, betrayal, lust, love, passion – these human virtues and vices are all on display. You don’t have to think it’s a satire on politics, it’s about everything. I think that’s part of the excitement of it.”
Mythos will also serve to plug a gap for many in the audience. Stephen comments that: “There is an enormous appetite among all kinds of people to put right what they left out at school. That’s why history, science and art are so popular now. More people go to art galleries in London than football matches. There is this hunger for knowing more, a curiosity.
“I hope I can take the smell of the school out of Greek myths because a lot of people associate them with a so-called classical education and believe that you have to be intellectual to understand them. But that’s just not the case. It’s not a test of intelligence, it’s quite the reverse. It’s welcoming you into this fantastic world, which is universal, sexy, juicy and full of fury and rage and adventures.”
The other amazing thing about the stories is that they contain so many parallels with contemporary life. Stephen points to a myth that has remarkable echoes today. “The story of Pandora’s Box is very much analogous with the rise of the internet,” he says.
“The Greeks understood that if something was too good to be true, then it was too good to be true. Everything casts a shadow – it took us a little bit of time to realise that the internet was casting a shadow.
“Pandora means gifted – she was given all the gifts of all the different Gods: wisdom, beauty, prophecy, art and music and so on. But she was also given this box which she was told she wasn’t to open.
“I was incredibly naive. When I was a very early user of the internet, I was a huge evangelist for it. I thought that it would solve the problems of the world. I thought, ‘Boundaries will dissolve and tribal divides and hatreds will disappear, and we’ll all suddenly understand each other and people who have unusual and different hobbies will be able to contact each other across the world instantly rather than relying on quarterly fanzines.’”
However, he says: “Pandora opened a box and out flew all these creatures who destroyed the world in which humans lived. This world without pain, this paradisiacal world was suddenly infested with the creatures from her box: war, famine, lies, murder, betrayal, lust and anger.
“Similarly, at some point in the first decade of this century, the lid of the box came off the internet, and trolls, abusers, groomers, misinformation, viruses, all flew out. What had seemed like a paradise, a beautiful clean pool in which we could all swim, was suddenly littered with broken glass and horribly polluted. That can sound very pessimistic, but the lesson is that life can be very tough.”
Reflecting on what he hopes audiences will take away from Mythos, he says. “I hope people will come out with a sense of ‘I never knew Greek myths could be so exciting! I’d heard of Narcissus and Echo. I knew there was something about turning into a flower, but I never knew that.’ I also hope everyone connects with these myths, which are deep in our language and our culture. I think this show will feed our curiosity.”
Above all, he says: “The most important thing is that the audience realise just how approachable the Greek myths are. These are the creations of ordinary people. They are all our ancestors. Poets and playwrights may have used them for their plays, but that’s a different thing. These are stories from all of us, from the earliest time around the fire.
“If you have ever had an exciting time around a campfire, whether it’s been caravanning with your parents or camping with friends, and you’ve sat round cooking sausages and telling each other stories – that’s the atmosphere that I want to create. It’s one of the most exciting atmospheres because we are all family.”
Stephen Fry is at the New Theatre Oxford from Wednesday-Saturday. Tickets from stephenfrymythoslive.com