You wait all year for an Arrows & Traps production… and then five come along at once. Unable to return to the stage just yet, Arrows have instead taken to the screen – and given the often cinematic style of writer and director Ross McGregor’s work, it should come as no particular surprise that the transition works pretty seamlessly.
The Talking Gods season imagines what would happen if the Gods of Olympus walked among us here in 21st century Britain. And while it might not be quite how we’d hoped to see them again, there’s no denying this is Arrows & Traps at their best, taking old stories and making them new and relevant for a 21st century audience through clever writing, exquisite performances and, as ever, meticulous production values.
At around seven and a half hours in total, Talking Gods is quite a time commitment. But don’t be tempted to cherry pick, because while each piece tells its own story, there’s a bigger picture unfolding in the background: a story of individuals forced against their will into a role they never wanted – by love, by fate, or by a tyrannical ruler who, even as his downfall approaches, is still managing to wreak havoc. And after a year where we’ve all, to some degree, had our freedom of choice taken away from us, that could hardly be a more appropriate thread through which to connect the five pieces.
The relevance doesn’t end there, however – with references to war, climate change, social isolation, sexual crimes against women… at times it’s hard to believe these stories are actually ancient myths. And although the details might be different – Persephone (Nicolle Smartt) is lured away from her mother by flirty texts from Hades; Pygmalion (Edward Spence) is a video game designer who falls for a rogue AI in one of his adventures – in McGregor’s careful hands, the essence of the stories remains intact. Even better, we get to hear new voices, many of them female: Hestia (Nicolle Smartt again), Persephone’s aunt, who’s left to pick up the pieces when she runs away; Eurydice (Charlie Ryall), whose love for Orpheus (Christopher Neels) isn’t the picture-perfect romance we’ve always been led to believe; Ariadne (Lucy Ioannou), who’s so much more than just Theseus’ love interest and the “keeper of the Minotaur”. I wonder how many of us turned immediately to Google after finishing each play, to find out more about the characters we’d just met. I imagine quite a few.
As for the performances, there’s not much to be said – in the very best way. In the years I’ve been reviewing Arrows & Traps, I’ve yet to see a bad performance from any actor, and Talking Gods is no exception. Arguably, there’s even less room for error in this format than in a live show, since the audience is even closer and has nowhere else to look, but every member of the cast steps up to the challenge flawlessly, taking an accomplished script and bringing the characters to fully three-dimensional life just as powerfully, personally and poignantly as if they were in the room with us.
I’ve already mentioned how the Arrows style lends itself to the small (or indeed big) screen, and this is thanks in no insignificant part to the expert efforts of the production team, whose use of lighting, music, video and sound effects bring another dimension to the pieces, elevating them beyond the realm of plays that just happen to have been filmed, and turning them into fully developed film productions in their own right. Their sterling work also allows each piece to have its own style, which keeps things fresh and the audience engaged throughout the lengthy total running time.
And yes, to those who are wondering, there is a dream sequence. They make us wait for it, but when it comes, it’s as powerful and dramatic as we might hope, with an emotional gut-punch of a final image guaranteed to bring a lump to the throat of any theatre lover. Talking Gods is great storytelling, expertly presented with the trademark Arrows wit and intelligence, and a cast of fascinating characters that make the series as bingeable as any Netflix drama. But it’s also a lament for all that’s been lost over this past year, and a heartfelt plea for its safe return – and I think that’s something all us mortal meatbags can relate to.
Talking Gods is available to watch for free at arrowsandtraps.com/talkinggods.