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Interview with author Stephen Fry on Mythos

Updated: May 23, 2021

James Rampton speaks to one of the nation's favourite story tellers in this syndicated interview

By James Rampton - 18th September 2019 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 will be travelling the country with his new show, “Mythos: A Trilogy – Gods. Heroes. Men.” Beginning at the Edinburgh International Festival on 19 August, Stephen will travel the UK visiting Salford, Liverpool, Birmingham, London, Oxford and Gateshead, delivering this trilogy of plays about Greek Gods, Heroes and Men. These timeless tales resonate to this very 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 single night. It promises to be one of the most captivating theatrical events of the year. Book early, as they say, to avoid disappointment. 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. Hilariously funny, often astonishing and frequently quite personal, Mythos is an experience that has to be seen to be believed. It is a once-in-a-lifetime event. But don’t just take my word for it. Stephen premiered the show last year at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada, where it was acclaimed by critics. The Toronto Star marvelled that, “Fry turns teaching into entertainment through the skill by which he tells history as a great story.” For its part, The Buffalo News pointed out that his, “Lacerating wit and penchant for the irreverent is a perfect fit for the many sordid stories of Greek myth.” Meanwhile, The Stage praised the show as, “An Olympian feat of storytelling well worth a pilgrimage.” With an astounding CV that takes in everything from hit TV panel shows (QI), sitcoms (Blackadder) and sketch shows (A Bit of Fry and Laurie) to documentaries (Stephen Fry in America), movies (Wilde) and books (The Fry Chronicles), Stephen is certainly one of my heroes. They often say that you should never meet your heroes, but I’m delighted to report that this meeting exceeded all expectations. Stephen is just as engaging and impressive off stage as he is on it. The 61-year-old Renaissance Man begins by explaining why he has decided to tour the UK for the first time in four decades. “I tried Mythos out at the Shaw Festival in Canada last year, and it went so well. “It was also a really interesting use of the stage – it’s not standup comedy and it’s not drama. It felt 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.” Stephen adds that by returning these stories to the oral tradition, he is bringing them back to where they belong. “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 the Greek myths is mirrored in the fact that they continue to reverberate in the literature of the last century. According to Stephen, “The stories cast a kind of spell if you are telling them right. Two of the most popular ‘manmade’ mythological sequences are the Tolkien and the JK Rowling series – I suppose 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.” The performer carries on that, “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 amongst 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 these stories is that they contain so many parallels with contemporary life. Stephen points to a myth that has quite remarkable echoes today. “The story of Pandora’s Box is very much analogous with the rise of the internet. “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.” He continues that, “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, Stephen admits, “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.” Stephen wraps up by reflecting on what he hopes audiences will take away from Mythos. “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.” He concludes that, “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.”

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