Today I’ve been spending time with Stephen Fry. (Well, yes, there might have been a few hundred other people there too – but who’s counting?)
I went along to the first of Stephen Fry’s three one-man storytelling shows, Gods, Heroes and Men, which he very kindly brought to the North East of England (we don’t usually get shows like that round here, so it was a pleasant surprise). I would have loved to go to all three, but the cost in time and money was rather beyond my reach. I’m sure many people did, though, and I admire their endurance. Not as much as I admire Stephen Fry’s, though: keeping the attention of an audience for such an extended period of time is quite a feat.
Gods was a sell-out show; The Sage Gateshead was packed with people who had set aside their Sunday afternoon to listen to stories of Greek myths. How often does that happen? Particularly in the North East, where enthusiasm like that tends to be reserved for football…
It was interesting for me to go to the Sage for this show, because I usually go there for Open University graduations. The crowd at an OU graduation is tremendously good-humoured: people strike up conversations with total strangers, asking what their degree was in and congratulating them on their achievements. You see small groups of people becoming big groups as these conversations spread and draw in other graduands and their families; and everybody’s smiling.
This crowd was different: lots of people talking earnestly and seriously about the books they’ve read. But there was some of the same warmth, particularly around the signed book stall (yes, of course I bought one!), where people were bouncing up and down with enthusiasm, and chatting away to others in the queue.
The show itself was staged beautifully. At its heart was simply a man sitting in a chair telling stories; but the background was a shifting display of graphics, moving from swirling chaos to glorious Greek scenery, and concluding with the mountain bleakness of Prometheus’ place of imprisonment.
The tales in this first show were mostly drawn from Fry’s first volume of myths, Mythos. When you read the book, it’s an engaging and humorous retelling, and I’m told the audiobook (read by Stephen Fry) is even better. But watching Fry tell the stories in person, it’s clear that he is delighted to bring the myths he loves to a wide audience. And there’s no doubt that he loves these stories. At various points this afternoon he invited audience members to choose what story would come next; and each time he was pointed towards a specific myth he responded with an enthusiasm that contradicted the weeks he’s spent touring the country with this show. I was a little disappointed that the audience choices pointed him towards some of the more well-known myths (Arachne, for instance, when I was hoping for my favourite, Philemon and Baucis) – but two and a half hours was simply not long enough to cover everybody’s favourites.
The theme of fire was a focal point (pun intended!). It was where Fry’s anecdotes started, with a discussion of how the hearth brought communities together and enabled storytelling in moments of leisure, and it was picked up several times – in his characterisation of Hestia as an underrated goddess, his emphasis on Prometheus’ gift of fire to mankind, and his unpicking of the etymology of English ‘hearth’, Latin ‘focus’ and Greek ‘kardia’, as well as his pose throughout as the storyteller by the fire.
One of the nicest elements of the show, in my view, was Fry’s openness in responding to the audience. In the interval we were invited to send in questions; and Fry’s impromptu responses to those questions, drawing on an encyclopaedic knowledge of myth, were perhaps the most impressive feature of a generally outstanding performance. In particular, he tackled the question of the difference between Greek and Roman myth from an impressively wide historical perspective, looking at the development of organised religion within the Roman Empire and following it forward to the rise of the Roman Catholic Church. (Granted, I thought he was a bit hard on the Romans: but then, I’m biased!)
As you probably know, I’m a big fan of Ovid; but what we don’t see when we read Ovid (as my friend Steve often tells me) is the relationship between poet and audience. We don’t see the performance: those little gestures – the smile, the raised eyebrow, the wave towards someone in the audience – that alert us to a double meaning. Watching Stephen Fry gives a sense of that. Like Ovid, he puts his own spin on the myths that he selects; he even cites Ovid as his inspiration for this when he says in Mythos,
Ovid was happy to add, subtract and invent, and this has influenced and emboldened me to be – shall we say imaginative? – in some of my retellings too.
But just as importantly – like Ovid – Fry is a celebrity, known for his wit. People expect him to have something dry and humorous to say: and as you look around the audience, you can see that they’re waiting for it, poised to be amused. There’s a sensitivity there, a thread of connection between storyteller and audience – and a pause, a look or an accent are all it takes to pull on it.
That’s the one thing that we can never quite recover, in our reading of Ovid’s myths: the experience of watching him read his work to an audience, and the connections he would have made with that audience, based on his reputation and fame. Fry does this: but his audience is much wider, and his connection with them is undoubtedly less personal. We can only speculate about how Ovid used his performance of the stories that he told to draw reactions from his own elite audience. However, experiencing storytelling of this sort as part of an audience brings us just a little bit closer to an understanding of what we’re missing: and maybe that’s important.
In short, it was a lovely afternoon: a chance simply to sit and listen to an excellent storyteller telling some of the world’s most enduringly popular stories. These days I rarely find myself giving my full attention to anything: when I’m watching television I tend to be answering emails or shopping for books online or checking my bank statement at the same time. The simple luxury of being forced to sit and listen was… refreshing. Also soporific, I have to admit – so in that sense I’m a little relieved to be home this evening writing my review, rather than jabbing my keys into my arm to try to stay awake through the second show. Storytelling is a wonderful thing: but there’s a reason why we tell our children stories at bedtime…
Cora Beth Knowles