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Written and directed by Ross McGregor and produced by Chris Tester, the Talking Gods series reimagines the deities of Ancient Greek mythology as living in the current era, placing them in contemporary contexts such as nightclubs, social media profiles and call centres. But, above all, as the deities have lived among us for so long, they are presented as having absorbed — to some extent — our values and emotions, our passions and interests, and our fears and concerns. This is a wonderful and engaging premise; there remain, however, some irregularities in this particular dramatic text.
The first of five plays in the series, Persephone, sees Nicolle Smart multi-rolling as Hestia, Demeter and, of course, Persephone herself. I shall start with Smart’s performance. Smart is a wonderfully transformative actress. Though some gestures, mannerisms or subtleties of voice do sometimes merge together between her characters, overall, Smart defines her characters extremely well and distinctly. Her characterisations — if a little caricaturistic — are refined and decisive. Smart is without a doubt an incredibly talented performer. I would just recommend that she pace herself a lot more in Demeter’s scenes, particularly towards the beginning of the performance. When replying to the interviewers’ questions — something upon which I shall later elaborate — Smart is especially overhasty. Nevertheless, a wonderful performance from Smart.
What is questionable, however — and this may be a directorial, or even editorial, decision — is the choice to have such specific and distinctly disparate profiles for Smart’s characters, given that they are all such close family members. I fail to understand how dress sense, dialect and general poise are so different, allowing for a posh, graceful and worrisome Hestia but a common, arrogant and casual Demeter. Indeed, mythologically speaking, the two certainly have very disparate personalities and propensities, but such demeanours should not affect the goddesses’ idiolects, particularly given that we are supposed to believe that they have been living together among us for all this time, sharing their life experiences alongside one another.
In fact, there are quite a few loose ends that need to be better examined in this dramatic text; for example, there are certain Judaeo-Christian references that pop up now and again, used casually by the characters to no effect and with no real significance. Demeter says, “Praise be, for a child be born unto them,” a [misquoted] biblical reference to Isaiah 9:6. The Book of Revelations is also mentioned later. It seems odd to me that Ancient Greek goddesses would allude to such things in passing, as though general parlance. And, if these are just ‘funny’ and absurd allusions to the old religions vs the new, which they justifiably may be, why not include other contemporary religions, such as Buddhism or Islam?
This lack of realism is not only in Demeter’s speech but in Hestia’s too. We find quite a few notable syntactical/lexical errors in Hestia’s speech that seem unnatural. Some sentences simply do not make any grammatical sense but are written as though simply to sound nice and to get across the fanciness of Hestia’s character. I write about such phrases as: “If he checks in the second bedroom, he’ll find some subsidence which he’ll no doubt appreciate retaining the funds for its remedy.” Perhaps Smart misremembered her lines? Or, indeed, it was thus incorrectly written. Either way, sentences like this one here need to be examined. Such bombastic language should not be relied upon so heavily to manifest a character’s traits and nature; it can overly alienate an audience in its unnaturalism, just as I believe it does regularly in this text with Hestia’s character.
Hestia’s speech also reveals other inconsistencies, but, this time, inconsistencies concerning the plot. She informs us that forgotten deities weaken and weaken until they lose their powers, and, essentially, fade into oblivion. Then, she remarks that everyone has forgotten her. So…why is she not weakened in the same way, fading away from memory? She also demonstrates in the very opening that deities are omniscient, that they can oversee all, and yet Hestia and Demeter have no idea where Persephone is when she runs away…?
The most significant issue I have with Hestia’s scenes, however, is that Hestia’s relation to the court scene is completely lost in the text. Her reason for being there and why the court is in motion in the first place needs to be far better expressed. One could infer that perhaps Zeus is being prosecuted for all he has done to the sisters, but to end on this is, in itself, insignificant and underwhelming, given that our focus has been entirely on the sisters and Persephone throughout; Zeus’s effects on them are secondary to their characters and to the plot we are presented.
These irregularities need to be carefully reconsidered, as realism and overall intrigue are really weakened by things like this. The dramatic text should succeed in presenting us with a clear, thoughtful and functioning world both relative to our own and one into which we can escape. I should probably note here as well, as a sidenote, the vulgarity of Persephone’s sex scene, given that we are led to believe she is a late teenager. I would urgently recommend removing this scenelet entirely; it is unnecessary and obscene and could be communicated in verbal reference, instead…
What could distance an audience the most in this text, however, is the manner in which Smart interacts with them. It is left unclear as to what our function is as audience members. Hestia seems to be simply recounting things to us, whilst it seems undecided as to whether Demeter is talking to us or a group of interviewers — upon which I shall elaborate shortly. Furthermore, Persephone is either addressing us directly or is portrayed as [re]living the events of the plot. These different audience functions, from listener to passive participant to witness, need be addressed and rectified, especially in Demeter’s scenes. Demeter speaks to the interviewers directly, sometimes glancing at us as though we are also an interviewer, asking questions and ‘responding’ as though the interviewers have answered her: “My role was always meant to be giving. [Pauses. Looks over at an off-screen interviewer.] Giving what? Well, shit, buddy, […] if it’s green, I gave it to you.” Thus, the interviewers are mimed characters whose presence and responses exist only in our imagination. And yet, Demeter is then told by a disembodied, off-screen voice, “You can’t [smoke] in here.” Are these imagined or real characters? This needs to be decided, particularly as this is a recurring issue in this performance.
As for video editing decisions (videography by Andrew Flynn), I have a few comments. Firstly, the CGI flames that appear on Smart’s hands [when playing Hestia] should be removed. They are stylistically inconsistent with the rest of the film’s visuals, and with the chosen depth of field being so shallow, Smart’s hands are out of focus, meaning that the flames — which are, actually, well designed and quite realistic — look simply out of place. Quick-paced cutaways during Persephone’s scenes, successfully evocative of the edited footage of a modern vlogger, funny as they may be, quickly become repetitive and overly deliberate. They do not feel organic or credible because of this, meaning, again, that we become distanced from any naturalism. The addition of emojis are a subtler touch but, yet again, are somewhat needless, with the happy emoji that replaces Persephone’s final words towards the end of the play opening the ending up for a sense of anticlimax or lack of catharsis, in that our final moments with this character do not feel natural or personal enough.
Finally, the music, as well-composed as it may be, is completely incongruous with this performance. The mood of the music simply does not match the mood of the text, from the upbeat music during Hestia’s sad soliloquies to the weird inclusion of the sounds of an orchestra tuning their instruments as we are inundated with Apollo’s (voiced by Owen Burley) tweets. Simply odd. The inclusion of music throughout, however, in theory, is a good idea, removing any unwanted sense of background silence as characters are talking. Lighting, on the other hand, is well designed and facilitative. Simplicity is key for performances like this, and lighting fulfilled its purpose well.
Overall, the dramatic text and the extra artistic decisions accompanying it are not the best… There are a lot of elements that need reworking. I would ask, what makes these goddesses indispensable to the story? It seems as though we have a normal, generic plot that could be applied to mortal humans, and another sub-plot that describes the characters’ godly actions and relationships of the past, and there is very little crossover — which is a huge problem, given that this crossover, where contemporary context and deities of the past are meant to meet, is the whole point of this series! I would urge that more care be taken in the conception of this text. I should elucidate here, however, that it is not that the text, all things considered, is terrible; it is simply just at war with itself, having not found a way to join these two plots together. The story remains enjoyable, but it takes its godly characters utterly for granted. This considered, Smart’s performing capabilities really do outshine this text, and I believe it is her outstanding characterisations and true skill that make this just-above-mediocre play so enjoyable and worth watching, hence the rating I give it.