Like many myths, Hercules is perennially relevant. Over the centuries (some) religion evolves, our understanding of science improves and technology continues to transform our daily lives but the essence of humanness is more constant, so stories that were popular among the ancients still chime with us today. The Romans altered details of Greek myths to suit their own realities and wo/man continues to rework those tales of old.
Bristol Old Vic Young Company has teamed up with The Wardrobe Ensemble to create a thoroughly modern telling of one of those best known myths, Hercules. I won’t go into the Greek or Roman telling here (you can find that online) – suffice it to say that Hercules is about the pit falls and pressures behind masculine strength and how a need to show courage and fortitude can lead us to make the wrong decision, to fly into rage, to face losing all we have.
This version of Hercules addresses beautifully the way we differentiate between male and female – teenage Meg’s (Megara) heartfelt speech about how it is damaging to call a woman ‘bossy’ won a deserved round of applause from the audience. As well as the inevitable themes of death and suicide, the stalwarts of envy and revenge, this production also deals with same sex relationships thanks to Ty/Theseus’ love for our eponymous demigod hero with a capital H (who is his best friend/cousin) and with our oft dubious treatment of each other in this #metoo world. This is bang on the money in its condemnation of toxic masculinity and, in the immediate wake of the uproar about that Gillette advert, the whole experience is eerily zeitgeisty. Furthermore, Zeus (Hercules ultra-competitive father) employs relentless consumerism from his Ping-Pong empire of Thebes and demands nothing but the best in a world where there is no place for losers. It’s not easy being a boy.
If I’ve made this sound far too heavy, I deceive you. Although there are many darker themes that are handled with sufficient sensitivity, I found this to be a wholly joyful experience with humorous writing. We laughed a lot. The young cast (11 to 22 years old) slipped into every role with seeming ease and Director Helena Middleton is surrounded by a crew that could teach many about professionalism. Mark clocked the ping pong table as we entered the Old Vic’s Weston Studio and audibly sighed but I reckon that Emily Leonard’s design might have won all sceptics over; inventive use of ping pong paraphernalia as the main props is reminiscent of watching a particularly clever episode of Channel 4’s ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’
I wonder whether less could be more in some respects – could bits of the story be left out? Probably not. The whizz though the 12 (community) labours feels a little rushed and the first half of the play definitely worked better than the second. Maybe it needs to be told in two parts, like Sally Cookson’s epic Jane Eyre – then we’d get to go twice! Bingo.
The Old Vic Young Company and the Wardrobe Ensemble make for a great pairing – this is up-to-date, effervescent, fresh theatre with a powerful and necessary message.
(And older Hercules – please don’t ever lose that Bristol accent).
See what else is coming up at Bristol Old Vic here
Image by Paul Blakemore, with thanks