Talking Gods – Aphrodite and Icarus

Reviewer's rating

Translations, adaptations and reworkings of the mythology of the Greco-Roman World are a
staple part of the history of Western European culture, holding up a mirror to changing
times through the medium of ever flexible archetypes, ordeals, encounters, and gripping
narratives. Some stay close to the original, as in the versions by Dryden and Pope recently
evoked by the RSC’s ‘Troy Stories’ (also reviewed on Plays to See). Others, like ‘Tales from
Ovid’ by the late Ted Hughes, move further from the outlines of the original. This sequence of five episodes from the company ‘Arrow and Traps’ falls very much into the last category.

One of the key themes of this collective mythology is the troubled and tense relationship
between divine power and concepts of morality and justice. The Gods may be all-powerful,
but they are also fickle and random – flaky even – demanding good behaviour of mortals
that they ceaselessly depart from in their own company. It is this uncomfortable territory
that is explored forensically here as different gods are re-shaped in contemporary settings.
Each episode can be viewed separately or in relation to the earlier ones with the benefit of
accumulated knowledge of the overall scenario – which is essentially that the Gods have
remained on earth for millennia, having to reinvent themselves as best they could under the
leadership of Zeus, here a sleazy figure now on trial. The last two parts, the subject of this
review, focus firstly on Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Ares, the god of war; and
secondly on Icarus and Ariadne as they recall their father Daedalus, a scientist who died
abruptly in mysterious circumstances.

Filmed at the Brockley Jack theatre by an experienced team, all the episodes display well-
crafted production values, most notably a varied lighting scheme, and aptly chosen music.
You can always test this aspect yourself just by closing your eyes and imagining these
performances as radio plays – would the visual dimension be missed? And yes, it would be.
Sometimes the inter-cutting and edits seem just a bit too sharp and abrupt, giving the sense
that there was not quite as much time for retakes as there should be in ordinary
circumstances, and ideally there should have been more movement to break up the diet of
facial close-ups to the camera. The acting is sustained to a uniformly high standard with the
scale of the performances adjusted to meet the scrutiny of the camera and voices projected
with imagination to develop a palate of many different shades and intensities.

These plays are at their best and most challenging when they reverse traditional polarities
and look at the story from an unusual perspective, whether of the conventional victim or
the customarily dominant figure. Both Aphrodite and Ares, usually seen as triumphant
figures in love and war, come over with much greater fragility.

Aphrodite – here acoustically reinvented as a drag queen by Benjamin Garrison – is confined and restricted by her role as goddess of love, denied family life, destined to a pattern of surrogate pregnancies, and able to ‘feel love, not share it.’ Ares is not a swaggering hero but a victim of anger management
issues, reduced to self-puzzlement and anxiety, like a character from East Enders on his

Likewise, in ‘Icarus’ the focus shifts from the feckless, recklessly risk-taking son we
know from Breughel and Auden to the inscrutable father, who turns out to have led a
double life; all of which raises more questions than can be readily resolved, especially about
the balance of damage and formation imposed by parenting.

The writing continually poses deep philosophical questions about identity and the gap
between our aspirations and achievements, while also telling stories; but the two registers
never quite mesh as they should in either episode. There is a yearning for symbol and
significance and great rhetorical display, but neither characters nor incident quite comes into
continual focus as they should. You have the sense that with the opportunity for more
rehearsal and refinement in front of the public plays both sharper and shorter might
emerge. With a director who is not the writer as well, it may be easier to make cuts and
reshape the material with a more relentless focus on dramatic impact and immediacy. Each
play could lose 20 minutes of running time to advantage.

It is to be hoped that this may happen in due course as the themes and issues explored here
are of great contemporary relevance and the creative team is more than up for the challenge.