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Ross McGregor: Talking Gods

By | Published on Friday 26 March 2021

When I was a young person, I was fairly obsessed with the myth and legend of the ancient world, and it’s a passion that hasn’t dimmed much with time.

So when I heard about producing company Arrows & Traps’ upcoming project ‘Talking Gods’, I was immediately interested: it’s a five day festival bringing together five filmed plays about the characters of Greek mythology, living in modern times.

To find out more about what to expect from the films, and what inspired them, I spoke to Ross McGregor, artistic director of Arrows & Traps, and writer of the plays.

CM: Can you start by giving us a general overview of what to expect from ‘Talking Gods’? What do we need to know from a technical perspective, and what kind of events should we expect?
RM: Of course. ‘Talking Gods’ is an anthology series of five filmed one-act plays based around modernised and adapted versions of Greek mythology. Whilst each play in the set is a standalone piece and can be viewed as such, there is an added level of enjoyment to watching all five in order – as the gods cross over into each other’s tales, and some of the stories return over multiple parts.

From a technical perspective, they can be viewed at our website – for free – thanks to the support of the Arts Council. Each one is premiering at 7.30pm across five nights – from 5-9 Apr – but if you miss the premiere you can still watch them via our site, at any point after that. In terms of the type of event you can expect – think of ‘Talking Gods’ as theatre pieces where you are the only member of the audience. They’re stage productions, but have been performed to a camera rather than an audience.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about each of the plays, and about the myths they are based on?
RM: Part I is ‘Persephone’, which is set in the domestic stricture of a family, and focuses primarily on the bond between two sister goddesses – Hestia and Demeter – a union that is severely tested when Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, goes missing.

Part II is ‘Orpheus’, which tells the classic romance of a man descending into the underworld to rescue Eurydice, the love of his life, but flips the convention around and tells it from Eurydice’s perspective, in a lively and electric reimagining.

Part III is ‘Pygmalion’, which sees the famous sculptor now a computer game designer trapped in an isolated electronic world of avatars and algorithms. When one of his video game characters starts talking back to him, he’s forced to go on a quest through the labyrinth to find a way home.

Part IV is ‘Aphrodite’, and deals with the dual narrative of Aphrodite – Goddess of love – and Ares – God of war – two intertwined lovers who are forced to find their places in the modern world – and come to terms with what exactly they are the god of, and what it means for humanity.

Part V is ‘Icarus’, which is a reflective elegy about fathers and sons, and the potential pitfalls about flying too high to the sun.

CM: Are there common themes connecting the plays?
RM: Absolutely, yes. Whilst they are set in a world that is not ours, this is a parallel history, where the Greek gods have been part of our world since our creation, not just in stories but tangible and meetable, a little like celebrities.

So in this world there is no COVID, and yet ‘Talking Gods’ deals with some common issues that we’ve all been dealing with over the last year – the importance of family, the importance of contact, of freedom, of connection, the danger of isolation, the growing influence of technology in our lives, the need to hold on to hope.

CM: The plays are set in contemporary times: Did these specific myths particularly lend themselves to this? Or do all the myths have contemporary relevance?
RM: There is a certain timeless nature to the Olympians – and, unlike their Titan predecessors, there’s just enough ‘humanity’ in them for us to see versions of ourselves.

The pride of Zeus, the bitterness of Hera, the Greek gods stand out from other deities as they’re incredibly fallible – none of them are perfect and they frequently make mistakes, only to regret it later.

The Christian god may be perfect and benevolent and all-knowing – which is lovely I’m sure – but it makes for some dull story-telling. Old Testament God is a little better, as he has a bit more flood-bringing, locust-launching wrath about him, but the Greek gods are perfect models for epic tales – as they love and live and lie just like the rest of us.

I’d say the very fact that we even know who Icarus, Hercules, Medusa and Jason are, after thousands of years, suggests contemporary relevance.

CM: And do the Greek myths work particularly well for theatre, do you think?
RM: Yes. Greek myths were some of the first tales that humanity ever told itself. During the nights where family and tribes were gathered around the fire to keep warm and safe from predators, they told each other stories to explain the world around them, to entertain, to move, to teach certain principles or cautionary tales.

In theatre, we’re starting to return to story-telling, after over a year of being silent. What better way to return than going back to the very beginning – to retell some ancient tales in a new way – for our times.

CM: I think the plays were written in lockdown? Did knowing that they would be viewed by audiences digitally change your approach in any way?
RM: They were indeed written over lockdown – over three weeks in January. And yes, definitely – there are certain things that happen in ‘Talking Gods’ that would have been quite hard to stage, but much easier to film. Things you don’t want the audience to see, you can hide quite easily on film, and reveal them at your leisure, that’s harder to do on stage.

There’s more freedom in terms of what can happen in some respects, but then also some points which would have been quite simple to stage, that turned into quite difficult moments to capture on film. Dialogue, for instance, is bread and butter for theatre, but on film you’re talking about shooting the same thing a hundred ways, to build it into something in the edit. It’s certainly been a learning curve.

CM: Given that online theatre has bloomed during lockdown, do you see it staying with us post-pandemic?
RM: I do, yes. I think everyone in theatre was shocked last year how completely it went wrong, and how quickly. When audiences disappeared, our entire industry’s income stream disappeared.

I think online / digital / streamed theatre is a great way to generate revenue for theatres and companies when they don’t have a live production running for whatever reason – whether that’s COVID or just because they are out of season – and also lets them reach a far wider audience than is normally possible.

How often does someone in Newcastle or Aberdeen get to go to the National? Probably not as often as they’d like. Now, with things like National At Home – they can. I think it’s great. It’s not live theatre, no, but I don’t think it’s trying to be.

CM: Can you tell us now a bit about the history of Arrows & Traps Theatre? How did the company begin and what aims and ethos does it have?
RM: Arrows & Traps Theatre began in 2014 as a London repertory theatre company, using a core base of actors and creatives across a season of shows, with the aim of building both a body of work and a creative way of working that fostered a short-hand style based on the same director working with the same group of actors through multiple pieces.

We began with six Shakespeare productions before moving into literary adaptations and new writing about historical non-fiction. We are the resident associate company at the Jack Studio Theatre, and just prior to March 2020 had moved into national touring, thanks to the support of the Arts Council.

My aims and ethos as an artistic director are to have a company that is a safe space for actors to test themselves, try roles outside of their usual castings, and work together as a cohesive and dynamic ensemble.

CM: What long term hopes and plans do you have for the (post-COVID) future?
RM: For me personally, I’d just be happy to be allowed in a pub again. For the company, we’d like to in time pick up where we left off a year ago. We’d like to return to live theatre, to come back to touring, to be allowed to tell stories again.

We’d like our lives back, but I’m sure so would many other people. Theatre was one of the first things to shut, and will likely be one of the last things to return – but we’re hopeful for the future. Cautiously whispering about it, daring to dream, if not actively plan.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after this?
RM: Who knows. I’d like to do another season of ‘Talking Gods’ – as there are so many more myths that are still to be told, and some of the characters in the first season are just so special to me, I’d like to come back to them and continue their stories.

There are also great tales I haven’t touched yet, like Medusa, Pandora, Hercules, Jason, Cadmus, Hera, Dionysus. Outside of the gods, I’ve got some historical figures that I’d like to write plays about: Joseph Lister, for example – who gave us antiseptic – would make a fascinating biopic.

Who knows, I think for most of us involved in theatre, the next twelve months will be a tentative process of waiting and seeing if the government’s roadmap actually happens at the rate they’ve said, and on the dates they’ve specified. There are a lot of factors to bear in mind, and theatre – as much as we all want it to return – can only be done when it’s safe to do so.

In the meantime – we have the ‘Talking Gods’ – and they have quite the tale to tell you.

One play in the ‘Talking Gods’ line up premieres each night from 5-9 Apr. Each is followed by a live Q&A, and will remain online and free to access following the initial broadcast. See the company website here.